By Michael S. Rosenwald and John Woodrow Cox
The Batmobile pulled into a gas station Sunday night and, as usual, the children who spotted it gawked.
Lenny B. Robinson was used to that. The Maryland man, better known as the Route 29 Batman, had for years dressed as the Caped Crusader and driven his custom-made car to deliver moments of happiness and distraction to hundreds of sick children at area hospitals.
His costume stored in the Batmobile but his alter ego never entirely switched off, Robinson gave the kids at the gas station some superhero paraphernalia before driving off.
Minutes later, Robinson pulled over with engine trouble on an unlit stretch of Interstate 70 near Hagerstown, Md., police said. The people he had just met parked behind him, turning their emergency lights on.
His car was stopped in the median but still “partially in the fast lane” when he got out to check the engine, according to state police. Around 10:30 p.m., a Toyota Camry slammed into the Batmobile, propelling the steel-framed hunk of black metal into his body. Robinson, 51, died at the scene. His funeral is scheduled for Wednesday in Owings Mill, Md.
The crash is still under investigation, and no charges have been filed. The driver of the Camry, who was not injured, declined to comment.
Robinson’s devastated family and friends gathered Monday at his parents’ home in Owings Mills, remembering him as a son and a brother, an uncle to three nieces and a father to three boys.
Though he was divorced and his kids lived in New Jersey, Robinson drove every weekend to pick up his sons and bring them to his home outside Baltimore.
“He was my brother, my business partner, my best friend,” Scott Robinson said. “He touched a lot of lives and made a lot of kids smile. That’s all he wanted to do.”
Robinson made his money in the cleaning business. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, his brother said, on his ’60s-style Batmobile, a costume that seemed more real than those in the movies, and the trinkets he handed out to children, always autographed “Batman.”
It took him about 45 minutes to put on the black eye makeup and his cumbersome superhero uniform, which drained him of five to six pounds in water weight every time he wore it.
Lenny Robinson and Wonder Woman (Leslie Vincent from Cast of Thousands), with patient Fatou Mboge and her mom, Awa Janneh, at the annual Hope for Henry Superhero Celebration at Georgetown Hospital. (Allen Goldberg)
In hospitals, he didn’t walk so much as stride.
Batman became famous three years ago after he was pulled over by Montgomery County police on Route 29 in a black Lamborghini and full superhero garb. Video of his encounter in Silver Spring with police, who had stopped him because of a problem with his plates — emblazoned with the Batman symbol — made him an instant Web sensation. But his identity remained unknown until The Washington Post revealed it.
The video and story turned up in millions of Facebook news feeds, even making it into a Jimmy Fallon monologue.
He first started wearing the costume because one of his sons, Brandon, was obsessed with the character. But when he saw how children reacted, Robinson found a new purpose.
The good deeds he did in character were, in some ways, penance for a temper that had led him to fights and run-ins with the law years ago.
Yuri Ozeryan, an amateur filmmaker who followed Robinson in 2012 for a now-stalled documentary, said Robinson joked that he had “bat senses,” his way of describing a willingness earlier in life to defend people — even with his fists.
“Sometimes,” Ozeryan added, “he might have started it.”
But the suit, Ozeryan said, changed him.
As the Dark Knight, Robinson used a deep voice, but he was careful to never scare younger children. He liked to pick up the smallest ones and hold them up so they could look down into his eyes.
He had a theory on why the character resonated with kids, explaining it in a 2012 online chat with Post readers.
“Batman is the only superhero that doesn’t have superpowers,” he said. “He’s naturally a superhero. Kids can relate to me a lot better.”
He also recalled the comment from parents that he coveted most: “This is the first time my son or daughter has smiled in months.”
On one visit to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, there were kids with tubes in their noses, with IVs in their arms. Robinson handed out gifts: books, rubber symbol bracelets and other toys. They all thought he was the real Batman.
Robinson worked closely with Hope for Henry, a D.C. organization that helps sick children. Founded by Laurie Strongin and Allen Goldberg after their son Henry died from a rare disease, the group threw superhero parties in hospitals. Batman was the star.
“When I asked him to do anything,” Strongin said, “he always said yes.”
Robinson had never met Henry, but he called her every year on the boy’s birthday.
She cried all morning Monday. The organization had just finished producing a video about the program. It starts with a boy dressed as Batman. He has leukemia. He’s waiting outside a hospital. The real Batman — Lenny Robinson — pulls up in his Batmobile, gets out and hugs the boy.
“He was magic,” Strongin said.
Marilyn Richardson, who works at Sinai Hospital’s Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics in Baltimore, met Robinson about a decade ago when Batman, in his humbler days, was still driving a Chrysler PT Cruiser. He later upgraded to the Lamborghini before having the custom car built.
She has thousands of photos of him and nearly as many stories.
On Monday, she recalled the teenager who, while recovering from surgery, had grown depressed as she saw friends on Facebook enjoying the life she wanted. One day, the girl looked out of her hospital room window and noticed the Batmobile.
Then the Caped Crusader walked in.
“Oh, my gosh,” she said. “Batman’s here.”
Robinson took a photo with her, and she uploaded it to Facebook. When Richardson saw her later, the girl was glowing: “I’ve never gotten this many likes.”
Another time, he was walking down the hall and came upon a solitary elderly woman staring at the floor. She looked up and saw him.
“Well, hello young lady,” he said. She stood up straight and beamed.
But no one adored Robinson more than Elizabeth Gardner, who lives in Reisterstown, Md., and suffers from TAR syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that has left her arms severely shortened.
She was 6 — and intensely afraid of costumed characters — when she first met Batman four years ago. They clicked.
“It was such a huge, huge moment in that he was able to break down that barrier,” said her mother, Lisa. “He just had a beautiful spirit about him.”
Elizabeth later told Robinson that she was being bullied by other kids at her elementary school.
“They don’t believe that Batman is my friend,” she told him.
So Robinson went to school with her, appearing in full costume before the student body. He told Elizabeth’s classmates that bullying was wrong and called her onstage to give her a Batman necklace.
Elizabeth, he announced, is my friend.
Later, in a moment captured on film, the two sat facing each other behind the stage. He had taken off his gloves to cool his sweaty hands in front of a fan.
“I wish I could be more like you,” he told her.
The girl shook her head no.
“That won’t do,” she said. “You’re your own person.”