There is one thing you never do on Sesame Street and that is put someone down.
“Our business is not to ridicule,” Caroll Spinney — the long time puppeteer inside Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch — tells Boulder Weekly.
“Dumb is a word we never use on Sesame Street,” Spinney says. “Or stupid,” adds Big Bird.
Opening this Friday at the Boedecker Theater, I Am Big Bird traces the life and times of the man who has played those roles for the past 46 years, uplifting countless children along the way.
To make the doc, directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker assemble a plethora of interviews and archival footage to give a comprehensive overview of Spinney’s long and impressive career. What is revealed is the synthesis of the Bird and the Grouch — a combination of innocence and honesty — that provides that makeup for Spinney’s life and work. Yet, as the title of the documentary alluded, Spinney will always be associated first with Big Bird, an association that isn’t simply happenstance.
“[ Jim Henson] thought that Big Bird should be done like a country yokel, like a Mortimer Snerd. … Just a goofy guy,” Spinney says. “As we were doing the show, I said, ‘I don’t think a goofy guy is what this show needs. I think it needs a kid.’ … Why can’t Big Bird be a kid?”
And like that, Big Bird went from being a country bumpkin to a big kid, and the character went from the wings to center stage.
Spinney is the heart and soul of the Bird. At the age of 81, he is still that big kid in the Bird, even slipping in and out of that iconic voice — as well as a variety of impressions — during the course of a 30-minute interview. But as fun as being Big Bird is, it certainly isn’t easy.
First, there’s the suit.
“The body weighs probably only about 10 lbs., and its sitting on a wide strap, suspenders kind of thing over our shoulders, so you don’t even notice it,” Spinney explains. “But the head weighs 4.5 lbs. And that doesn’t sound like a lot until you try holding it over your head.”
To operate Big Bird, Spinney slides his left hand into Big Bird’s left wing, which is attached via fishing line up to Big Bird’s beak and back down to the right wing. This allows Spinney to move either the left wing independently or both wings simultaneously. To operate the head, Spinney stretches his right arm high above his head and uses his thumb and three fingers to operate the beak while the pinky pulls on a small lever to makes the eyes blink.
Of course, part of puppetry is seeing how the puppet is reacting, so Spinney straps a video monitor connected to the studio camera feed to his chest to see how Big Bird is behaving. If that wasn’t complicated enough, Spinney also has the scripts taped to the inside of the suit to keep pace with the scene. And he can do all that while rollerskating or riding a unicycle. It’s all in a days work for Caroll Spinney.
The yellow suit, the roller skating, the childlike demeanor and the “La, la, la” he sings to himself as he strolls down 123 Sesame Street — that’s just part of it. But the heart of the character lies in Big Bird’s voice, Spinney says.
“Well, it’s just my own voice, you just go higher, if you want to make a young sounding voice,” Spinney says, slipping into Big Bird’s usual register. “It sounds cuter, somehow. I’m not trying to be cute.”
But he is trying to make every child’s day just a little more magical.
“I did a funny thing at Macy’s once,” Spinney says. “There was a new [Big Bird] puppet that I recorded the voice for. … It was a toy that had batteries in it, and if you touched his tummy he would talk.
“I hear this woman say [to her daughter], ‘Look, Elizabeth, that’s the Big Bird toy that talks.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, they’re pretty nice aren’t they?’ … so I said, ‘Let’s see if it works.’
“I leaned down and I put my face away from them, and I poked his tummy and said, [as Big Bird], ‘Hello, Elizabeth. My, that’s a pretty red dress.’ [The woman] says, ‘Oh my, that’s amazing! He knew my little girl’s name! How would he know her name? And this toy can tell what color dress she’s wearing?’ And so I said, ‘That’s pretty good isn’t it?’ And I poked it again, and it said, ‘Elizabeth, is it still snowing out?’ She said, ‘Yes.’
“The woman stood up — she was leaning over to listen, she didn’t see me do it — and she says, ‘Sounds just like him. That’s amazing. Come on, Elizabeth.’ And walked away.
“If I had a toy that talked to my little girl and called her by name, and could tell she was wearing a red dress and asked her about the weather, I would have bought that so fast!” Big Bird isn’t the only kid around; Caroll Spinney is running a close second. Who would want it any other way?