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PERFORMER Caroll Spinney 1969-2018
  Matt Vogel 1997-present
DEBUT 1969
DESIGN Jim Henson designer
  Kermit Love
Don Sahlin
Caroly Wilcox builders

Big Bird looks at his drawing of Mr. Hooper.

Jim Henson's original design for Big Bird.

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Big Bird is an 8'2" yellow bird who lives on Sesame Street. Since Sesame Street premiered in 1969, Big Bird has entertained millions of pre-school children and their parents with his wide-eyed wondering at the world.

The world-famous bird has been a central character on Sesame Street for the program's run, debuting in the first episode. The big yellow bird can roller skate, ice skate, dance, sing, write poetry, draw and even ride a unicycle — pretty talented for a character described in the TV show's writer's guide as a 6-year-old. But despite this wide array of talents, he's prone to frequent misunderstandings, like thinking that the alphabet is one long word.

Big Bird lives in a large nest behind 123 Sesame Street and next to Oscar's trash can, and he has a teddy bear named Radar.

Big Bird helps children feel all right about not knowing everything because he himself does not know everything, and encourages them to inquire: a common Big Bird phrase in recent years has been "Asking questions is a good way of finding things out!" He also teaches other life, alphabet, and numerical lessons: "I guess it's better to be who you are. Turns out people like you best that way, anyway."[1]

Big Bird is also known to make friends easily. As a central character, Big Bird historically has been the first to welcome a new visitor or resident to Sesame Street in several storylines, often guiding them around the neighborhood and introducing them to the locals. One famous example is Episode 4109, which introduces Abby Cadabby to the cast. Big Bird commented on his amiability in a 2019 interview with TIME, saying "Maybe people see big 8-ft. birds a lot and they just feel comfortable. I don't know. I think it's just because I'm a friendly bird."[2]

For many years, his best friend Mr. Snuffleupagus (who Big Bird calls Snuffy) was deemed as imaginary by the adults on Sesame Street. Every time Snuffy would visit, he would coincidentally leave just before the adults arrived. Despite not being believed by the adults, Big Bird continued to assert that Snuffy was real. In the early 1980s, a string of high-profile child sexual abuse cases caused Sesame Workshop (then Children's Television Workshop) to eliminate this running gag, fearing that children would take to heart the message that, if adults don't believe something out of the ordinary even when they are telling the truth, they'd be just as well off to remain silent.

Big Bird's closest human friendship, however, for many years was with storekeeper Mr. Hooper, who made his birdseed milkshakes. Big Bird's inability to say the storekeeper's name correctly (most often rendered as "Mr. Looper") was a source of frustration, but they remained close. Big Bird took center stage on Sesame Street in the early 1980s, when the show dealt with the death of Mr. Hooper (necessitated by the death of Will Lee, the actor who played the role). Big Bird got confused when he tried to go into Hooper's Store to give Mr. Hooper his drawing Big Bird made of and for him. The adults, including Maria, David, Bob, Susan, Gordon, Olivia and Luis tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper is not coming back because he's dead, and when people die, they don't come back. ("Ever?" "No, never.") Big Bird's realization that Mr. Hooper wasn't just gone temporarily, and Big Bird's acceptance of Mr. Hooper's death, have been hailed as a milestone in children's programming.

Big Bird starred on the big screen in the 1985 film Follow That Bird, in which he is sent by Miss Finch, a bird social worker, to live with a foster family of Dodos. He soon runs away from his new home to get back to Sesame Street and he is kidnapped and dyed baby blue by two ratty carnival-owners. He also had a role in the feature film The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland and starred in the feature-length specials Big Bird in China and Big Bird in Japan.

Big Bird also appeared in cameo roles in the films The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan and the television special A Muppet Family Christmas, and as a guest on The Muppet Show episode 318, plus a variety of outside TV appearances.

Big Bird's species

An early design for Big Bird by Jim Henson, on Children's Television Workshop stationery.

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Big Bird's precise species is unknown, and over the years, there have been varying explanations for his unusual size and appearance:

  • When he sees a photograph of himself taken by Olivia in Episode 0950, Big Bird says, "Boy, that is the nicest looking oriole I've ever seen." He immediately says he was kidding and sets the record straight, "I'm not an oriole."
  • Bob Hope inquired about Big Bird's species in his 1976 World of Comedy special. Big Bird explains that his mother was "a yellow-breasted hornswabble talking tiki", and his father "a yellow-winged liver-lilied fender-bender." He surmises that makes him "a chicken with a gland problem?"
  • In a 1981 episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, King Friday XIII asked Big Bird if he's related to the cassowary. Big Bird replied, "Actually, I'm a golden condor."[4]
  • In a 1985 interview with The Toronto Star, Big Bird "calls himself a giant golden condor."[5]
  • In the 2004 direct-to-video special A Celebration of Me, Grover, Big Bird says, "I wish I could fly like Super Grover. But my Grandpa was an emu bird. They can't fly. But they can run! Every fall, Grandpa ran south for the winter."
  • Oscar the Grouch sometimes refers to Big Bird as a "turkey" — an insult rather than a reflection of Big Bird's species. However, this does help Big Bird hitch a ride on a turkey truck in the 1985 film Follow That Bird; he talks his way onto the truck by claiming that "my friend Oscar always says that I'm a big turkey!" In a 2009 interview with TV Guide, Big Bird said that Oscar is "a little grouchy. He calls me a turkey. I'm not a turkey; I'm a lark."[7]
  • Big Bird fielded the question, sampled from a Google search, in a 2017 video for Wired. He answers, "I've been told that I'm a lark, um, Oscar says that I'm part homing pigeon. But, I think I'm a 'bigus canarius.' Look it up."

Big Bird's family

Nani Bird, Granny Bird, and Baby Big Bird

Big Bird and his best friend, Mr. Snuffleupagus

Big Bird with his teddy bear, Radar

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Big Bird, with his loving Sesame Street family.

see Big Bird's family

Big Bird lives alone on Sesame Street, essentially adopted by the general neighborhood, with the adults often acting as stand-in parents (in particular, Susan, Gordon, and Maria). In Sesame Street Home Video Visits the Hospital, when the hospital receptionist asks if Maria is Big Bird's mother, she replies, "Not exactly... kind of... yes." In Episode 4618, during the song "You're the Mom for Me," Big Bird gives a bouquet of paper flowers to Nina, whom he considers a surrogate mom.

As a baby, Big Bird was raised by his Granny Bird and his aunt, Nani Bird. As he became more self-reliant, Big Bird moved out on his own, to his nest on Sesame Street. Granny Bird remains a part of his life, and he often visits her in the books.[8] When Big Bird's nest was destroyed in a hurricane in 2001, Big Bird called Granny for advice about building a new nest.[9]

There is also scattered evidence of other relations. In Episode 0302, Big Bird receives a coat from his mommy in the mail, and he babysits for his sister's egg in Episode 0345. He also mentions a mother, father, and sister in the song "Tall Enough." It's unclear why Big Bird was raised apart from his nuclear family.

Although Big Bird does know his family, in the book Big Bird's Bedtime Story, Luis tells Big Bird's back story, stating that a large egg was delivered to Hooper's Store one day, and the various residents of Sesame Street chose to build a nest for it and took care of it until it hatched. However, the story is probably not considered canon because it features a few characters who were not around when the series began (such as David, Luis and Telly Monster).

Big Bird's age

Big Bird in his nest

Although Big Bird's role as the child viewer's surrogate remained consistent from the beginning, his age was originally kept ambiguous. In episode 0032, Big Bird dreams of attending kindergarten one day, and on other occasions has confessed to not being old enough to do certain things like driving. In episode 0295, he makes a brief mention of his nephew Marlon. The 1973 Sesame Street style guide described Big Bird as "like a three-year old". It was not until season 10 that Big Bird was officially identified as six years old. His age had been frozen since then: he's six years old in the 1985 film Follow That Bird, and still six in the 1989 special Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting. Big Bird celebrated his sixth birthday (again) in the 1991 PBS pledge drive special Big Bird's Birthday or Let Me Eat Cake. "He's about 6," Spinney says, "arrested at 6."[10]

They realized that Big Bird isn't the village idiot - he a child, with a wide-eyed view of the world. For a long time, we played him at age 4. Now we see him as 6½ - and there he stays.
—Caroll Spinney[11]

Big Bird's birthday is March 20th.

Performing Big Bird

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A second puppeteer, concealed behind the puppet, helps Big Bird hold Radar during filming of a Sesame Street scene.

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The Big Bird performer is completely enclosed within the costume and extends his right hand over his head to operate the head and neck of the puppet. The Muppeteer's left-hand serves as the Bird's left hand, while the right hand is stuffed and hangs loosely from a fishing line that runs through a loop under the neck and attaches to the wrist of the left hand. Occasionally, a second puppeteer operates the right hand in scenes where Big Bird moves both of his hands or holds a prop.

When Caroll Spinney performed Big Bird on-location and could not get a video feed on his television monitor, a hole was made in the bird suit to give Spinney the ability to see out in front of him. On these occasions, Big Bird wears a necktie at all times to hide the hole. Don't Eat the Pictures, Big Bird in China and Big Bird in Japan are all examples of this.

As Spinney aged, new performers were trained to play Big Bird. For over 20 years, Matt Vogel was Spinney's primary understudy, doubling as Big Bird for live appearances and in occasional Sesame Street segments. Vogel has sometimes puppeteered Big Bird to Spinney's voice, and other times performed the voice himself, most prominently in the show's Journey to Ernie segments. By 2015, Spinney had stopped puppeteering Big Bird due to physical setbacks, but he continued to provide the voice for seasons 46 and 47 while Vogel puppeteered the bird on-set. Vogel continued to perform and voice Big Bird in other appearances and, with Spinney's retirement in 2018, officially became his successor. See also Caroll Spinney character transitions.

Other Big Bird puppeteers over the years have included Rick Lyon for the opening theme song of the show's 20th, 25th, 30th and 33rd seasons,[12][13] Noel MacNeal for several Macy's Parades and a 2015 appearance on The Tonight Show, and Peter Linz for the "Number of the Day" song and Shakespeare in the Park.[14]

Caroll Spinney was sick during the taping of a few first season episodes, so Daniel Seagren performed Big Bird in those episodes[15] (including Episode 0083). He also performed Big Bird when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, and in a number of Sesame Street Cast Tours in 1970. Jim Henson, who designed Big Bird, proved to be a possible candidate to perform the bird, as he was slender and over six feet tall. But Kermit Love, who built the costume, didn't think that he walked like a bird is supposed to walk.[16] Henson then offered the part to Frank Oz, but since Oz hated performing full-body characters, he turned down the job.[17]

For years, Spinney had a policy of refusing to pose for photographs in half of the bird suit. He later explained why in an interview for The New Yorker:

Look magazine had an article on us in 1970. Big Bird was built a little differently then: He was strapped on me, and you couldn't easily get out without an assistant reaching underneath and unbuckling things—now it slips right off, it's much better. So I couldn't get out. But you had to breathe after a while, so I was able to stick my head out between the body and the head, and they had a photo of me sticking my head out. And Jim Henson said, "Don't let that ever happen again. You're either bird or you, but no in between."[18]

Notes

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  • Big Bird's feathers are white turkey feathers, dyed yellow. There are approximately 4,000 feathers on the puppet.[19] According to Muppet wrangler Michelle Hickey, Big Bird's feathers are "hand-glued and backed with a ribbon that is hand-stitched on." His feathers are also rated from A to D, with only A and B rated feathers making up the puppet. Occasionally C rated feathers are used towards the bottom of the puppet. Hickey also states that the feathers are replaced every two weeks, or after the Muppet has been to an event.[20] Count von Count has taken it upon himself to count the feathers on a number of occasions, each with a different number total. These instances include Learning About Numbers (5,961), Episode 2722 (4,798), and Episode 5015 (6,273).
  • Jim Henson had originally planned on having the performer inside Big Bird perform the character by wearing the suit backwards so that Big Bird could bend his knees backwards like a real bird.[21]
  • Big Bird made a special guest appearance on an episode of Deal or No Deal, to help contestant Lamar Wilson overcome his childhood fear of the bird.
  • There were plans to have Big Bird fly on the Space Shuttle Challenger (specifically, on the exact same flight that ultimately ended with the destruction of the Challenger), but the sheer size of the puppet prevented these plans from reaching fruition. Instead, there was a plan to feature Big Bird's teddy bear Radar to fly on the Challenger, and Radar was even included on the original mission plan, but the plan was scrapped in favor of having teacher Christa McAuliffe fly on the ill-fated mission.[23]

Awards & Honors

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  • Big Bird received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994.
  • Big Bird was featured on a U.S. postage stamp in 1999 and on postage stamps in Fiji, Kiribati, the Cayman Islands, and Samoa in 2000.

See also

Sources

  1. Borgenicht, David. Sesame Street Unpaved, Hyperion Books, 1998. page 37
  2. TIME "'We're All Growing Up Together': As Sesame Street Turns 50, Big Bird Is Still Making Friends Everywhere He Goes" by Lily Rothman, November 7, 2019
  3. Hollywood Squares, 1976. (YouTube)
  4. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, episode 1483: "Mister Rogers Talks about Competition." June 3, 1981.
  5. Stephen Ostick, "Big Bird in flap over first movie role," Toronto Star, July 25, 1985, H5.
  6. Borgenicht, David. Sesame Street Unpaved, Hyperion Books, 1998. page 34.
  7. Eng, Joyce. "Sesame Street and Big Bird Feel 40 Years Young," TVGuide.com. November 25, 2009.
  8. I Want to Go Home! (1985), Nothing to Do (1988), I Can't Wait Until Christmas (1989), Big Bird Visits Granny Bird (1991) and Fly Away with Big Bird (2006).
  9. Sesame Street, Episode 3979 and Episode 3980.
  10. Spinney reveals "The Wisdom of Big Bird"
  11. Walker, Joseph. The Deseret News: "Meet the man behind Big Bird's beak." November 25, 1988.
  12. Lyon, Rick behind-the-scenes photos and information
  13. Rick Lyon and The Lyon Puppets Facebook post, October 17, 2018 — "Here's a little tribute video Sesame Workshop posted (psst - Bird crossing the bridge with kids is me!)." (referencing 1:05 in the video)
  14. Personal communication by Anthony T.
  15. Jim Henson Archives, personal correspondence archived at [1]
  16. Durrett, Deanne The Importance of Jim Henson
  17. Spinney, Caroll The Wisdom of Big Bird, p. 39
  18. The New Yorker. "Conversation: Caroll Spinney, the Man Inside Big Bird," by Blake Eskin. November 6, 2009.
  19. Sesame Street 35 Years Anniversary Game
  20. Big Bird's Wrangler
  21. Spinney, Caroll The Wisdom of Big Bird, pp. 40-41.
  22. Jim Henson's Memorial Service running order.
  23. At the Caroll Spinney Muppet Vault, Copper Pot pictures related this story.

External links

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