“I Am Big Bird” is a documentary about 81-year-old Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street” since 1969. While it is as nostalgic and heartwarming as you’d imagine, it’s also an intriguing look into the world of a sensitive person, whose childhood was rocky with an abusive father (but loving mother who sewed many puppets), who created two unforgettable characters, one of which remains iconic all over the world.
At the same time, it takes us through the always fascinating beginning of “Sesame Street” and the glory days of stuffed Big Bird toys everywhere and “Follow That Bird” (memories!), before the show’s writing started aiming younger and Elmo became the star.
The movie, directed and produced by Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker, features interviews with classic Sesame Street actors like Emilio Delgado (Luis) and Loretta Long (Susan), as well as Frank Oz, the late Jerry Nelson (The Count), the late Jane Henson, Spinney’s loving wife and children, and also Matt Vogel, the understudy for Big Bird, who gets into the mechanics of the puppet/costume. To be honest, I never realized that Spinney was inside the costume holding his arm up over his head the entire time he’s playing Big Bird, using his hand to work the mouth and eyes. The film shows that Big Bird slouches a bit nowadays because Spinney can’t hold his arm up quite as high! No kidding. The amount of multi-tasking he does inside the costume is incredible: reading his lines, watching a small monitor, working the face and arms, all the while dancing around.
The story follows Spinney from his first local access show while in the Air Force, which was a ticket away from home, to the WHDH Boston show, “Judy and Goggle”, with Judy Valentine in 1960. He and Judy later joined “The Bozo Show” with (creepy) Bozo The Clown, until Spinney caught the attention of Jim Henson during a disastrous convention puppet show, where Spinney was forced to ad lib thanks to technical difficulties. Spinney’s nerves and insecurities when first invited to work with Henson and his (pleasantly bearded, hippy-looking) crew are palpable as he describes his mistakes and learning curve.
Yet Spinney quickly imbibed Big Bird with his own sweet nature and wonder at the world, and soon stole the hearts of children everywhere, becoming close friends with Henson. The movie gives Oscar The Grouch short shrift in comparison, but Spinney does discuss arguments that were had over whether Oscar should secretly have a heart of gold, and also reveals that his voice came from a New York cab driver who said, “Where to, Mac?” I’m not sure if it’s explained that Vogel will also take over for Oscar, but I certainly hope someone does. Also, look out for a story about The Challenger tragedy that I never heard before and kind of blew my mind.
“I Am Big Bird” opens May 15 at the Laemmle Royal in West L.A.
Image via movie website