By Richard Crouse – Metro Canada
Big Bird is, arguably, one of the best-known characters on the planet but how much do we really know about him? We know he’s yellow, 8′ 2″ and lives in a large nest behind 123 Sesame Street but the rest is murky. A new documentary, I Am Big Bird, exposes Caroll Spinney, the man who has spent forty-five years beneath the Muppet’s felt and feathers and knows the bird better than anyone. Spinney is Big Bird and Big Bird is Spinney. Here are five things you might not know about Big Bird and the man behind the mask.
- Muppet mastermind Jim Henson created Big Bird, but Spinney says, “I was given a lot of freedom to create the kind of guy he is. He’s a person like I was as a kid, except he doesn’t get pushed around as much. I was the smallest boy in my class so there is a lot of satisfaction playing the largest character who’s ever been on television. To be loved like a little child but be eight-feet-two, what a strange accomplishment.”
- Caroll’s relationship with Big Bird lasted longer than his first marriage, which blew up because his then wife was “embarrassed” by his career choice but Spinney calls his job “a dream come true. From the moment I first became aware of television I knew I wanted to be on TV regularly for children. So many of the things that have happened for me have been things I dreamed of doing.” As for retiring? “I can’t imagine it,” he says. “It keeps me young.”
- Underneath Big Bird’s feathers is a device called “an electric bra” strapped to Spinney’s chest so he can see what’s happening outside the feathers. “We call it that just as a joke,” says Spinney. “It’s really a TV monitor, a tiny little television set. We have a new one now, an LED monitor and it is too big. It takes up room and it is robbing me of space for the scripts inside.”
- Caroll is President Obama’s ninth cousin, but Big Bird isn’t dogmatic in the least. “Big Bird, I’m told by the owners of him, does not have political opinions. I thought of an idea that would get around that problem if someone [ever asked about it]. ‘I don’t know who that is,’ he says in Big’s voice. ‘I thought we had a king.’ In most fairy tales lands are run by kings or queens.”
- NASA invited Big Bird’s to be a passenger on the doomed Space Shuttle Challenger to get kids interested in the space program. “I said, ‘Yes, I’d love to go.’ About a month later they found out there was no place on the craft to put Big Bird. I realized it would be dangerous, but who could picture what actually happened?”
Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are, arguably, two of the best-known characters on the planet and yet very few people know the man behind the felt and feathers, Caroll Spinney. A new film, “I Am Big Bird,” aims to introduce audiences to the eighty-year-old puppeteer and the last remaining of the three original “Sesame Street” main cast members—Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Spinney—who started the show.
Comprised of new interviews coupled with Spinney’s archive of photos and home movies “I Am Big Bird” begins before the bird when the puppeteer was a television pioneer, performing on a show while he was still in the Air Force, just eight years after the invention of television. Later he honed his craft, appearing on “Bozo’s Big Top” before being tapped by Jim Henson to join “Sesame Street.”
Over the next 45 years he wore (and continues to wear) the feathered suit—complete with a monitor strapped to his chest, his “electric bra,” so he can see what’s going on outside the puppet—in China with Bob Hope (and later in a special titled “Big Bird in China”) and was almost part of the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger. NASA revoked their invite because BB wouldn’t fit on the craft.
From the stage of the Children’s Television Workshop to the political stage—he generated 17,000 tweets a minute after Mitt Romney said he would cut funding to PBS and essentially fire Big Bird—Spinney’s character has become a pop culture icon for young and old.
“I Am Big Bird” is, as you might imagine, is a sweet-natured doc, not unlike the famous feathered character. There are some rough spots—Spinney had a troubled relationship with his father and Henson’s early death devastated everyone who knew him—but the tone here is one of sentimentality, not deep introspection. Still it provides a nostalgic rush to see the Bird in action and get some insight into Spinney’s relationship with the puppet. “I don’t own him, of course,” he says, “but I own his soul I feel.”
The film explains Big Bird’s appeal goes beyond the suit, which is adorned with 4000 bright yellow feathers, many of which were stolen by rowdy university students who plucked Big Bird for souvenirs. One talking head suggests Spinney can go back in time and almost recreate the questions, the fears and thoughts of a youngster, making him instantly relatable to the younger set.
Perhaps so, but I think it’s the unconditional love Spinney puts into his greatest creation (sorry Oscar). That spirit radiates from Big Bird and this film, giving both the heart needed to be memorable.