When a show like “Bones” needs, well, bones, Hollywood calls on Burbank native Gary Robbins. Same goes for werewolves, sneaker-clad bison and Stuart Little’s stand-in — all can be found in an unassuming warehouse and workshop located in downtown Burbank across from a comedy club.
After walking under the giant shark with someone’s legs in its jaws, you’re greeted at Bischoff’s Taxidermy and Animal FX by a reception area resplendent with serpents, critters, creepy-crawlies, and a nice married couple who welcome you into their business in the same way a mom and pop might invite you in to sell you shoes or some baked goods.
But at Bischoff’s, the crafts of Gary and Mary Robbins are of a macabre sort. And it’s the go-to place for Hollywood’s taxidermy needs.
“What’s fun is making up the custom orders — especially when they want blood and guts,” Gary Robbins said.
That’s why, in his shop, roadkill has its place next to beautifully pristine fox pelts, mounted moose heads and a stuffed polar bear. The thousands of animals that fill his building are lovingly, expertly arranged by Robbins himself, not that exotic taxidermy was exactly in his lifelong plans.
A hunter, Robbins frequented Bischoff’s back when it was located on San Fernando a few blocks away. He was working as a contractor in 1996 when the shop — which already contained several of Robbins’ mounts — went up for sale.
“I walked in the wrong door at the wrong time,” he joked.
The business served mostly private hunters and did a little studio work. Shortly after taking over, Robbins flipped that ratio, and today he works exclusively for television and movies.
That’s not to say he doesn’t get the odd local request now and then. He once preserved a human hipbone; another man wanted Robbins to preserve his deceased brother’s tattoos.
“I don’t think so,” he responded.
Sometimes he receives donations of family pets — he says rats, cats and dogs “are movie work.”
“We’ve got a freezer full of ‘em. We get jobs for them now and then,” he said.
While there’s a high demand for taxidermy as set dressing, Robbins’ creations sometimes earn leading roles. He created several mouse figures for the computer animators of “Stuart Little” to work from, and when Johnny Depp plays Tonto in the upcoming Lone Ranger movie, the crow on his head is one of several props Robbins created for the film, including a fullsized bison.
It’s still hard — and expensive — to create realistic animals using purely animation, so Robbins plans to keep his shop as long as there’s work, and the technology lags behind the satisfying splurt of a “real” sewer rat stuffed with a blood bladder.
Or, so as long as artists come calling with strange requests.
Robbins’ more creative work has involved a display for an artist who wanted him to wrap snakeskin around an ostrich body. He’s also affixed several alligator heads to one body for an episode of “Dexter,” and on at least one occasion rocker Marilyn Manson asked for a lambskin jacket.
The mark of a true taxidermist, Robbins says, is one who constantly observes animals in the wild to understand how they move and how their muscles work. He orders a pelt and shapes a body form to match it, always measuring and re-sizing.
The challenge is true for any artist: Robbins has to create with his hands what he sees in his mind. A pile of scrap tiger fur on his workshop floor will soon be turned into a “victim” on “Bones” — an animal found buried in the earth.
It is delicate, intricate work to keep showbiz stocked with its reanimated menagerie — and Robbins is both artist and agent for his creations.