Charlie Zill, the popular long-time usher at Camden Yards who entertained Orioles fans with his “Zillbilly” dance during the seventh-inning stretch, died late Saturday night of lung cancer. He was 56.
Zill, who had been diagnosed with cancer three and a half years ago, attended his final Orioles game April 17 as a guest of the club.
Wearing an Orioles cap and jersey over his trademark “Zillbilly” overalls, he threw out the first pitch from his wheelchair before the Orioles took the field against the Tampa Bay Rays. During the seventh-inning stretch, he was shown on the video board twirling his signature orange fiddle and mugging for the cameras from the balcony of his club-level suite.
“He was just so happy,” his wife, Trudy Zill, said of that evening. “He was just ecstatic. He talked about that for days afterward.”
Zill had been an usher at Orioles game for 17 seasons before taking a medical leave of absence this year.
In addition to performing as the “Zillbilly” with straw hat, fake teeth and hillbilly overalls to John Denver’s “Country Boy” during the seventh-inning stretch, Zill performed magic tricks for fans in Section 244 between innings and during rain delays and pitching changes.
The self-professed born showman began working as an usher at Orioles games in 1995 and introduced his “Zillibilly” act a few years later.
“I wasn’t sure if I was insulting people,” he said in a March interview with The Baltimore Sun. “At first some people thought it was real.”
But the skit soon became a huge hit with fans. Over the years, Zill introduced new elements to his act, including the bright orange fiddle that he pretended to play.
He even bought an orange fiddle for the Oriole Bird, and the two teamed in a “duet” that delighted the Camden Yards crowds.
“I love making people smile,” he said in March. “Always have.”
Weakened by the cancer and chemotherapy treatments and with his breathing labored, Zill nevertheless managed one last joyful “Zillbilly” dance that flashed on the video board as the sell-out crowd roared. The Orioles went on to beat the Yankees 3-2 and tie the series at one game apiece.
"We are saddened to learn of Charlie Zill's passing," the Orioles said in a statement. "Since 1997 Charlie was a fixture at Oriole Park, entertaining millions of fans during the seventh inning stretch as his "Zillbilly" character. Over the last several years his determination and positive attitude served as an inspiration for so many as he continued to work in spite of his illness. He will be deeply missed, and we extend our condolences to his family."
Trudy Zill said her husband was visited by friends and family at their Red Lion, Pa., home the day before he died.
“He was on high doses of morphine” to ease the pain, she said. “(But) he smiled at all of them. It was beautiful. If that’s the way a person goes, with a smile on his face, then that’s OK.”
Zill is survived by his wife of 21 years, Trudy, and five children.
Relatives and friends may call at Connelly Funeral Home of Dundalk at 7110 Sollers Point Road on Wednesday and Thursday, from 3 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. A funeral service will take place Friday at 11 a.m., also at Connelly Funeral Home.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made at any M&T Bank branch for the Charles Zill Children's Memorial.