SOUTH PORTLAND — Robert Crowley entertained an overflow crowd of more than 350 residents at the Community Center on Tuesday, “Bob Crowley Day” in the city.
Men, women and children of all ages packed the center’s senior wing to hear tales from the 57-year-old physics teacher who beat 17 other competitors to take home the $1 million grand prize in the 17th season of the CBS reality show “Survivor,” filmed last summer in Gabon, Africa.
Along the way to being named “Sole Survivor,” Crowley won the hearts of many TV viewers, who chose him as America’s Favorite Player of the Season, an honor that comes with an additional $100,000 prize.
Crowley, wearing tan slacks and shirt, a black leather jacket, a pair of grey Croc sandals and, of course, his trademark bow tie, arrived shortly before 7 p.m. in a stretch limousine led by a police escort. He then proceeded to keep the crowd riveted and in stitches through his two-hour performance.
Initially, Crowley, who still wears the beard he grew on the show, appeared to be surprised by the overflow crowd, but he soon found his groove.
“I’m a little overwhelmed,” he said. “I thought maybe 20 or 40 people would show up.”
The father of three spoke without notes throughout the evening, weaving tales of his adventures in Gabon and dishing the inside scoop on the other contestants. Crowley, whose performance was equal parts amusing and educational, animated his tales with body language, showing the crowd some of the agility his displayed on the show.
In a particularly amusing story, he talked about how the show’s contestants were briefed by a zoologist on how to protect themselves from wild African animals, which included 500-pound silver back gorillas, forest buffalos, black mamba snakes, pythons, cobras and elephants.
Crowley said contestants were given the following advice: Kneel on the ground and pretend to eat a leaf if charged by a gorilla, clap and scream like a chimpanzee if charged by a buffalo, and run in a zigzag pattern if chased by an elephant with its ears pinned back.
Contestants were also told not to linger in areas where feces were spread on tree trunks, the marking of hippopotamuses, which kill more people in Africa than any other animal.
After listening to the presentation on the Gabon vipers (which he said look like big slugs with really long fangs), Crowley, who was afraid of snakes before the show, said a large leaf fell from a tree and landed on the back of Jessica “Sugar” Kiper.
“She lets out a blood-curdling scream,” Crowley said, “and I jumped up, screamed like a chimpanzee, ran in a zig-zag pattern and spread dung all over the trees.”
When asked what his favorite moment was on “Survivor,” Crowley said it
was when he took his long walk on Exile Island, where he climbed a mountain
and drank in the African landscape sprawling before him for miles around.
That moment also resonated with City Councilor Linda Boudreau, a self-confessed “Survivor” addict, who presented Crowley with a key to the city.
“In 17 seasons I have never seen anyone appreciate the beauty of the place they were visiting,” Boudreau said. “It was just incredible to see the maturity in Bob.”
Crowley, who always seemed to have a one-liner handy, advised everyone to remove whatever items were stored in the rooms that key unlocks. “I might just take something to make a fake immunity idol,” he said.
Crowley related a conversation he had in the spring with his father, who died in September, about three months before Crowley won the TV contest. Crowley’s 87-year-old father was never fond of liars and told his son that being on the show was an enormous responsibility, saying he was representing the entire state of Maine.
But there was one loophole.
“Bluffing in poker is not lying, so play for all the marbles in the pot,” Crowley recalled, and he placed a marble in a sack for every contestant voted off. “I just tried to make my mom and dad proud. The rest of you can just jump on the bandwagon.”
Crowley’s integrity and ingenuity have been widely lauded. However, it almost cost him a spot on the show. During the fifth day of a seven-day interview with “Survivor” producers in Los Angeles, Crowley was asked whether he could lie and deceive.
Crowley said he couldn’t and if that was expected of him the producers should immediately end the interview. Much to his surprise, they did and sent him back to Maine. But they called him back several weeks later. Crowley speculated the show had a specific niche it needed to fill after getting the strong young men and beautiful women.
“Apparently they needed a skinny, ugly old man,” Crowley said, drawing a huge laugh from the crowd.
Crowley said he was surprised by the level of deceit used by Kenny Hoang, with whom he thought he had an alliance. That deceit, he said, wasn’t known until he watched the show.
“I’m still trying to get over it,” Crowley said. “Kenny deserves an Oscar for his performance. He probably played the best game of anyone.”
Crowley said he still keeps in touch with many of the other contestants, including Randy Bailey, whom Crowley embarrassed when he let Bailey have one of his two fake immunity idols. “I’m inviting everyone to Maine this summer for lobster,” he said.
At the end of the season, Sugar, a struggling actress now living Los Angeles, described Crowley as a father figure. So when Sugar, whose L.A. apartment contains mostly inflatable furniture, recently broke up with her boyfriend, Crowley said he was giving her fatherly support and advice.
And Crowley said his nephew, who also lives in L.A., will be taking Sugar out to buy a new television, which Crowley’s wife, Peggy, is buying for her.
Many of the questions came from children interested in the food that was available. Crowley said he disliked the taste of maggots and termites, describing the flavor as blasé. Ants, however, were his favorite. “They taste like little gum drops,” he said.
When asked about the ferocity of bugs in Africa, Crowley, a quintessential Mainer, laughed off the question.
“The bugs were worse when I got back to South Portland,” he said.
Applause erupts as “Survivor” winner Bob Crowley walks into the crowded multi-purpose room at the South Portland Community Center Tuesday night for the conclusion of the city’s official Bob Crowley Day. Nearly 400 people came to hear Crowley tell stories from his experience, ask him questions and get an autograph and a photo.
Crowley, with the key to the city: “If I were you,” he told the audience, “I’d take whatever this locks up and hide it.”
Nine-year-old Carigan Allie, second from right, was one of many who waited in line for an autograph and a chance to meet South Portland’s “Survivor” winner.