Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?
Well, being that many of us have found way there at some point in our lives, the path is pretty clear. We have grown up and learned, laughed and even cried as we joined our friends at 123 Sesame Street over the last 45 years. Jim Henson’s Sesame Street Muppets, separate yet equal to the Disney Muppet clan, have always been slightly more distinct in comparison to their hilarious, explosive cousins. These Muppets and their human neighbors have taught the world about almost every aspect of life, big and small. Whether it was learning our ABCs, eating healthy or even trying to explain the aspect of death on that street, we all shared similar moments in this education. In the midst of this great learning and entertainment, there was always a Muppet that stood tall among the rest, both literally and figuratively. I am not talking about the lovable Elmo, or the best buddy duo of Bert and Ernie. I am referring to the great, 8-foot tall, yellow friend to all, Big Bird himself. Anyone who has watched and for the few that have never watched Sesame Street, (yes, those people exist), all know the grand splendor of this lovely childlike giant. However, few know the soul of Big Bird, Caroll Spinney, the Muppeteer who has been playing with the bird, as well as Oscar the Grouch, his entire life.
This past weekend I happily attended the NYC premiere of the documentary: I Am Big Bird directed by Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker. The showing was a special treat thanks to DOC NYC that told the story of Caroll Spinney’s life and career as the one and only Big Bird. Fans, artists and fellow Sesame Street citizens alike all attended to hear and witness a story very few have ever knew about. I had only gotten an introduction to Caroll’s life thanks to his autobiography, The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons from a Life in Feathers, of which I read immediately upon its discovery. Luckily, this documentary was an opportunity to visualize and listen to various artists and Muppeteers tell their tale of Caroll’s impact with Sesame Street and the world. What was most exciting to see was the chance to enjoy unreleased videos and interviews of Muppet colleagues as well as Caroll’s own accounts of his inspirational journey.
Being a lifelong fan, appreciator and occasional contributor of all things Muppets, the thrill and excitement of the night was already set for me. I arrived early at the SVA Theater to claim a good seat. Despite waiting in a long line outside in the November cold, the seating dilemma was a piece of cake. Upon entering the doors of the theater, the actor Bob McGrath, who has played the kind and musical Bob Johnson on Sesame Street, walked calmly in front of me! He looked like he was on a similar mission to find a good seat as well. Tonight was going to be a great night. As I made my way to my seat, there were tons of people eagerly chatting and getting excited for the show to begin. Some were even looking stage left at a strange boundary of black curtains blocking something large. People kept running in and out of it, while also making sure the curtains remained tightly shut. Right before the show began, the source of all of our curiosity was answered, Big Bird himself along with the directors came lumbering out to greet us. Cheers and the flash of photos followed the famous bird. There was not a grin hidden from anyone’s face. Big Bird and his friends welcomed us and hoped that we would enjoy the film and then disappeared into the black curtains as the silver screen came to life.
I will not divulge into too much of the actual film, you should all see it for yourselves! However, the essence of the piece is a simple showcase of Caroll’s sensitive and free demeanor in the Muppet world. From start to finish, viewers step into the shoes of Caroll’s passion for art and puppetry. He has successfully mastered these crafts during his 80-year reign as a performer. Caroll has always been an interesting member of Jim Henson’s Muppeteer crew. He felt different compared to the rest of the group, a separate link to the Muppet machine. All of Jim Henson’s Muppeteers worked their magic across a myriad of mediums and films to broaden their breadth among the Muppets. Caroll, however, was always grounded in his work on Sesame Street with Big Bird and Oscar. Although, regret was never heard in Caroll’s voice as he discussed his joy of being a Muppeteer to these two iconic characters. He loves his job and as testament to his personality, lives to be that giant bird and that grumpy Grouch.
Probably the best part of the film is the unique and touching love story that sprung into the Muppeteer’s life. In his darkest and loneliest hours, Caroll found the love his life in Debra Spinney, who humorously was asked out by Caroll three times before she finally said yes! Since that day, she has been not only his manager but also a supportive wife for the artist. Caroll and Debra’s love is simple and sweet with all the aspects of what companionship should feel like. They both admire each other and strive to turn their dreams into reality. Debra’s unusual happiness and optimism in the face of all the various struggles that life brings was what Caroll needed to keep his magic alive. They may be the best celebrity couple you have never heard of.
As Caroll’s success is told throughout, one grows to appreciate his determination and desire to please. He sets amazing goals to make sure he lives up to not only Jim Henson’s expectations but also the audience who love these characters. He keeps their souls alive and well. Even his understudy, Matt Vogel, must prepare to eventually perform Big Bird and honor his legacy. His progeny understands the power of the bird as well as the unique innocence that must continue in his growth. With that knowledge in place, the wisdom of the Sesame Street Muppets moves forward. That is one impressive feat. Big Bird’s character is not the only one to undergo this transition, all the sesame Street Muppets eventually have to grow as new artists help guide them.
At the end of the film, Caroll and Debra came onstage along with the directors for a brief Q & A. Oh, I forgot to mention that Oscar the Grouch was present as well, which made everyone laugh and smile, much to his dismay. On stage, Caroll’s kindness and modesty is plainly visible. He calmly and quietly answered each and every question with as much information as he could and remained grateful for the fans who have enjoyed his work over the years. He confidently noted that he has no plans to retire!
Even after the unfortunate and detrimental passing of Jim Henson at the age of 53 in 1990, Caroll and crew have kept his iconic art as colorful as ever. Jim Henson’s work is not solely famous because he made fun furry Muppets, but rather his special insight on finding amazing talent in people who give life to these one of a kind creatures. Every single Muppeteer, young and old, have a gift of making these creatures become loved by a worldwide audience. In every child there is an Elmo, Big Bird, Bert and Ernie and a wealth of characters that have graced the decades on both Sesame Street and Disney’s Muppets. Caroll Spinney is one of those unsung heroes that have given us all a friend in the heart of Big Bird and even Oscar. He has given us so much happiness and good clean fun. I am looking forward to seeing what more magic will be created.
Until then, I will see you on the street!