This week in my movie class, we saw the documentary, “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story” .
Puppeteer Caroll Spinney has been playing the role of Big Bird on the Public Television Show “Sesame Street” for over 40 years; in this documentary, we learn how his background informed his puppetry and how he endured various challenges in both his personal and professional life.
Nearly 80 years old, puppeteer Caroll Spinney has spent about half his life portraying a very famous character on a wildly-popular television show. Although his might not be a household name and no one recognizes him when he walks the streets of New York City, he is famous all around the world because he plays the character Big Bird on TV’s “Sesame Street”; because of the longevity of both the show and the character, both are beloved by not only children but also by adults who grew up watching “Sesame Street” when they were children themselves. However, Spinney’s life, both before and during his long success, has been considerably less idyllic than either his character or the TV show that spawned it might suggest.
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Spinney was the youngest of three sons; he was close to his mother, an artist, who strongly encouraged Spinney’s creative side when she became aware of his love of puppetry. On the other hand, his relationship with his father was quite difficult; the father had quite a temper and even as a small boy who almost never got into trouble, Spinney was able to raise his father’s ire with just about anything he did. The father developed a low opinion of his son and was convinced he would amount to nothing in life. Spinney wound up joining the military to escape his father; upon leaving the service, he resumed his dream of being a puppeteer by getting work on various television shows, including and especially Bozo The Clown.
After meeting Jim Henson at a puppetry convention, Spinney was invited to join The Muppets as “Sesame Street” was in its nascent form. Although he initially had a hard time fitting in with the rest of the group, Spinney found he was more comfortable performing as a puppeteer on his own when he played characters such as Big Bird and the trashcan-dwelling Oscar The Grouch. With Big Bird seen as being an overgrown six year old child, many of the children in the audience were immediately drawn to the character as they found him to be easily relatable and non-threatening. But in later years, when the show developed other popular characters such as Elmo, would Big Bird still be able to sustain his success?
While “I Am Big Bird” gives an interesting insight behind the man behind the puppet, it does beg the question, “Why are we being told this story?”. I suppose the argument can be made that while Spinney himself may not be well known, the show and the puppets he portrays are very famous both around the country and around the world; add to that the fact that he’s the lone surviving puppeteer from the original Muppets team that is still working on “Sesame Street” and there’s probably justification for a documentary. That said, I think the filmmakers had to work hard to make this interesting in terms of adding external conflict to Spinney’s story – the man isn’t exactly the most volatile or controversial personality you’ve ever encountered.
For all of the mild-mannered nature that Spinney appears to have, he does sometimes come across as a bit of a ham – maybe a necessary attribute if you’re going to be a puppeteer. However, the fact that he’s not much of a team player – he preferred to perform as a lone character rather than as a part of a group of puppets – certainly does suggest he’s got quite an ego despite his soft-spoken demeanor. The documentary seems to be something of a puff piece for its subject – Spinney comes across as a flawless, almost saint-like character. Although mention is made that his decade long first marriage ended in divorce, he makes it clear that it was all his ex-wife’s fault and he was entirely blameless. Is it true? Who knows? But even if it is, it doesn’t make for much of a dramatically compelling character in a documentary.
Following the screening, Spinney was interviewed by our instructor. He talked a bit about the technical aspects of the Big Bird puppet. In the documentary, we saw that when Spinney is in the Big Bird costume, he has to wear a miniature television strapped to his chest so he can see everything going on around him since he’s unable to view out of the costume itself; he mentioned in the interview that it’s more difficult now to tape the script above the camera because there are now more pages than there used to be (the scripts have gotten considerably wordier over the years). Additionally, he mentioned that high definition television has not exactly been kind to the Big Bird character; the costume simulates movement of the character’s right wing by using fishing wire that loops through the underside of the beak – although this was never a problem in the old days, the wire is now visible when watching the show on HDTV. While the Big Bird costume was a little too bulky to transport, he did bring along the Oscar The Grouch puppet and performed as that character for a while, conducting part of the interview as Oscar.