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Pigeonhole this actor thusly: the Birdman of Silver Lake

More than 30 years after arriving from his native Italy, bird-lover Rik Martino is still looking for his big-screen break. In the meantime, pigeons are the primary recipients of his seed money.

June 05, 2010|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times

Contradictions fly along Hyperion Avenue when the Birdman of Silver Lake takes wing.

Rik Martino rolls his wobbly cart with two mismatched wheels to the corner of Tracy Street and stops at Baller Hardware to buy two 20-pound bags of True Value Wild Bird Food.

More than 30 years after arriving from his native Italy, the 58-year-old actor is still looking for his big-screen break.

Square-jawed and body-builder muscular, Martino views himself as more Al Pacino than Jean-Claude Van Damme. "No martial arts films for me. I want to be a serious actor," he explains as he waits in line to pay.

The customer in front of him, a man wearing spandex bicycling gear, is a few cents short for his purchase. Martino fishes in his pockets, pulls out a handful of coins and plunks them on the counter in front of the surprised stranger.

Martino spends about $12 for the seed. Clerk Joe Klaas gives him a small discount. "He's in here a couple of times a day," Klaas says. "Nobody else buys 50 or 60 pounds of bird seed a day like Franco does."

Says another hardware store worker with a laugh: "We're enablers."

"Franco Massimo" is Martino's stage name. Some in Silver Lake call him that, while others know him as Rik.

"I should be out looking for a job," Martino jokes. "I don't have a car. I'm a poor guy. I shouldn't be doing this. I know some people don't like it, but I put the birds first."

With that, Martino heads up Hyperion, spreading bird seed as he goes. He sprinkles handfuls in planters for small songbirds. He flings cupfuls on the edges of parking lots and landscaped strips for pigeons.

For about 10 years, Martino shared a home a block off Hyperion with an ill man he worked for as a conservator. When the man died last year, Martino sold the house to close out the estate. He now rents a small apartment about two miles away, living off savings.

Martino's love for birds began in 1984 when he rescued a pigeon hit by a car and nursed him back to health. "When I let him go and watched him fly off, I got so depressed," he remembers.

A few days later he spied the rescued pigeon on a neighbor's roof. When Martino tried to re-catch the distinctive-looking bird, the home's owner called the police. "I explained what I was trying to do and the cops said I should get a little net. I finally caught him a few days later in a fishnet."

He kept the pigeon for two years until he flew off. After that, Martino began using seed to attract birds.

Eventually, he had about 200 pigeons roosting in a coop and in a shed behind the Silver Lake conservatorship home. About 25 of them still live in a tree at the residence, and they swoop down when Martino whistles for them as he spreads seed along five blocks of Hyperion Avenue.

Hundreds of other pigeons fly in from other directions. They sit atop streetlights, store signs and power lines as they wait for the seed to be distributed.

Many along Hyperion Avenue dislike the bird feeding — and the resulting droppings. But most seem to genuinely like the friendly, outgoing Martino.

"We have a lot of pigeons. We had pigeons alighting on our front door this morning," said Allison Carter of Crossroads Trading Co., a vintage clothing shop. "But his gesture is so lovely."

Down the street at the SiLa Bistro, co-owners Frank Boyle and Ray Lopez said they struggle with the pigeon problem constantly.

"I have nothing against pigeons, but you shouldn't be feeding them where people eat," Boyle said. "We had to put up spikes to keep them out of our entryway. We have to go out all the time and clean up the poop. It etches the concrete walkway."

The Birdman is nice, Lopez added. "We don't wish him ill, but I worry about pigeons swarming out there."

John McGinnis, who purchased the house that Martino lived in, said the home's floors had to be refinished because of damage from pigeon droppings. He plans to put up spikes to keep the birds away from the front door.

"My wife and I have a 2-year-old," said McGinnis, executive producer for a motion graphics company. "It's a bummer to have poop on the front steps."

Martino shrugs off that kind of criticism. "Pigeons get a bad rap because people don't know pigeons," he says. "They say they are dirty and bring disease. I've been taking care of them for 30 years and look at me."

The Birdman scatters seed in front of a strip mall before ducking inside a copy shop to print some fliers warning of what he calls a "dangerous" puddle of oily gutter water that is attracting thirsty pigeons.

Martino posts the fliers on power poles — near notices placed by the "Franklin Hills Anti-Counterfeiting Committee" warning of fake bills being passed on the street.

His handwritten flier includes his name, phone number and a reference to a YouTube video about him that a friend has produced. That lends legitimacy to what he's doing, Martino says.

Borrowing a broom from a nearby gas station, Martino sweeps the oily water into a storm drain.

Then he heads for home, his work done for this day.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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