Life on the Inside of Sesame Street's Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch

by John Garratt

10 August 2015

The story of the man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch needs no embellishment to make it an emotional one, but that doesn't stop the filmmakers from trying.
 
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I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

Director: David LaMattina, Chad Walker
Cast: Caroll Spinney, Debra Spinney, Frank Oz, Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Henson, Jerry Nelson, Emilio Delgado, Bob McGrath

(Tribeca)
US DVD: 11 Aug 2015
UK DVD: 1 Jun 2015

For a moment, conjure up inside your mind’s ear that highly sappy, emotional music that plays in the background at the start and conclusion of a touching documentary. Now take that music and imagine it spreading itself over the entirety of a documentary, even during passages where it’s competing with pre-existing music, and you can easily understand why critics feel that they can freely toss around adjectives like “sweet”, “loving”, “touching”, and “affectionate”. While it’s true that I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, does have moments that can legitimately called “touching”, the melodramatic use of home movie footage and aggressively schmaltzy background music gives the impression that someone is making a cheap bid for your tear ducts. It’s not the worst kind of manipulation there is, but too much effort rarely goes unnoticed.

For all its heartstring tugging, I Am Big Bird didn’t have to rely on those efforts. This could have been one of those stories that tells itself.

Puppeteer Spinney brought two of Sesame Street‘s anchor characters to life: Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. To this day, they are still regarded as some of the most widely recognized fictional characters in the entire world, their identities forever intertwined with the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW). Yet there was a time when Big Bird was a misshapen, doofusey “country yokel” and Oscar was orange. I Am Big Bird makes it plainly clear that Spinney couldn’t construct his own personal Rome overnight.

Falling into Sesame Street seemed straightforward enough—Jim Henson admired Spinney’s improvisational skills during an ill-fated piece of performance art—but staying at CTW proved the tougher task. In the early ‘70s, Spinney was getting divorced from his first wife. At work, he was too star-struck to give his best performances while in the presence of Henson. His New York neighborhood was a dump and he once contemplated throwing himself out his nine story-high window.

After a brief pep talk with fellow puppeteer Kermit Love, Spinney soon found his footing inside of Big Bird. The struggle paid off as Big Bird’s retooled personality proved to be very relatable to young children. Soon, Big Bird was being pedaled in the forms of a plush doll and an over-sized parade balloon. He even made an onstage guest appearance with the Boston Pops. Sesame Street actor Bob McGrath likened the hysteria to a toddler-level Woodstock.

Spinney had a near-normal childhood. His mother was supportive of his quirky hobbies while his father was not. There was a very fine line between misunderstanding and anger when it came to his father’s temperament. When young Spinney accidentally spilled a can of paint, the elder Spinney almost clobbered his son with a coat rack. At the last minute his mother came between them—literally. She received the bruises while young Caroll tried his best to dodge his father’s temper.

There’s a home movie moment in this film where Spinney, by this time a successful puppeteer, announces to his parents that Bob Hope had just invited the one and only Big Bird to come with him on a trip to China. While his mother is overcome with joy and becomes nearly lost for words, the elder Spinney’s face reads as a complete blank. Having Hope ask you to accompany him on a trip is surreal enough. But traveling to China with him? That’s almost science fiction, and Spinney’s father’s unimpressed face speaks volumes.

The trip to China was successful enough for the Sesame Street team to return to the estranged country at a later date to film Big Bird in China. It’s here where the documentary takes a brief detour into the territory of Jon Stone. Stone was a screenwriter and director who guided Sesame Street through its crucial early years. By the time Big Bird in China was underway, he was probably the most dominant behind-the-scenes person on staff. And during the China adventure, the relationship between Stone and Spinney turned sour. No one knows why, not even Spinney. If Stone had a reason for his icy behavior towards such an important colleague, it’s likely that he took it to his grave.

There exists a tension inside of Spinney as well, a personality push-and-pull that allows him to become Oscar the Grouch. The sweet personality that he channels into Big Bird seems to be, by and large, his default personality. But life’s little inconveniences often send one in search of a safety valve, and Spinney found his in Oscar.

The film doesn’t show Spinney in too many ugly moods, however. The closest thing to real life grouchiness they show you is Spinney walking away from someone in disgust while muttering “He’s trying to fuck me over.” (It’s not clear to whom he was referring.) To Stone’s chagrin, Spinney was able to give Oscar a relatable side, a reminder to children that no one can be purely bad.

Some interviews make the astute observation that Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are the two loners of Sesame Street—one has a nest all to himself, the other has a can all to himself. But when Spinney takes off his costume or slides his hand out of the tin garbage can, he’s just a good-natured traveler of the middle road. He does have plenty of emotional baggage in tow—the cruelty of his childhood peers, the death of Jim Henson, having his Big Bird suit vandalized by ROTC students, befriending Chinese actor Ouyang Lianzi on the set of Big Bird Goes to China only to leave and not reconnect with her until decades later—but he doesn’t seem to let any of it get in his way at work or home life.

In the mid-‘80s, NASA reached out to Spinney with a request to have Big Bird shot into orbit. Their reasoning was that not too many kids were interested in science and space travel at the time, and launching Big Bird through the earth’s atmosphere in a big shuttle would be just the ticket to get the younger generation interested in astronomy and physics. Months before take off, Spinney learned that there was no room for him and his costume on the Challenger. So instead he and the Sesame Street production team took a lunch break on the day of the launch to watch it on TV. What happened next gave NASA a crash course in damage control. Kids were no longer the only ones reluctant to pursue a career in space travel. As Caroll and Debra Spinney tell this story to the camera, it’s crystal clear that they can’t make light of it—and this is a couple that makes light of just about everything.

All through I Am Big Bird Spinney’s age is never treated as the elephant in the room. While the Big Bird costume is described as “low tech”, it’s physically and mentally demanding to operate. Spinney’s right hand is constantly extended to work the mouth and presumably the eyelids too. The left hand controls the left wing and the right wing is controlled via a fishing wire from the left wing. Inside the suit, Spinney reads his lines while watching himself on a tiny monitor. This monitor beams in what the camera is seeing, meaning that left and right get reversed. Spinney is able to do all of this while on roller skates, so it’s no surprise that age is catching up to him. How long can the average person hold their right arm in the air while using only the muscles in their hand to make a large beak flap open and shut before they begin to suffer from some strain?

There’s a scene in I Am Big Bird where, through some specific editing, you catch a glimpse of Spinney loosing steam in a young man’s game. He sits down on the floor of a vintage convertible, giving the impression that Oscar the Grouch is in the driver’s seat. The overdubbed interviews in this scene are geared towards the hardships that a performer like Spinney faces. While these sound clips go on about the difficulties of sustaining a character’s popularity while trying to keep up with the kids, the footage is strung together to make Spinney look like he’s on his last leg. Members of the crew are having a fun time with one another while Spinney looks like he’s genuinely confused. If David LaMattina and Chad Walker were trying to capture Spinney in a moment of senility, I’d say they achieved it.

Yet retirement is not on Spinney’s radar. He seems willing to be Big Bird until he can’t physically do it anymore. When that day arrives, Spinney’s protégé Matt Vogel will step into the suit and take it from there. One of the DVD extras shows Spinney trying to narrow down candidates from a Sesame Street audition in China. And though Spinney is reluctant to let people take temporary control of his beloved character, he still manages to become enthusiastic about one of the candidates.

Retirement would agree with Spinney since he already takes advantage of his free time so well. He has an exceptional relationship with his second wife Debra and his children don’t appear to be scarred by their dad’s rigorous work schedule during their childhood. He and Debra travel a great deal and Spinney has kept his artistic skills sharp doing paintings and sketches (during his time on Bozo the Clown, he designed the opening animation sequence).

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, as a DVD, doesn’t sound very clear. For one thing, as mentioned earlier, LaMattina and Walker rely too heavily on syrupy, generic music to tug on your heartstrings. It periodically gets in the way of the interviews, times when background silence would create a better effect. The voice of the present day Caroll Spinney was either recorded through a shoddy microphone that doesn’t know what to do with the low end of a voice’s frequency, or was rushed through a soundboard onto DVD without any appropriate adjustments made. One moment you’re cranking up the volume on your TV to hear what’s being said. Then you have to frantically push the down arrow on your volume button, an inefficient D.I.Y. approach to audio compression.

The DVD’s bonus features are nothing grand, just different facets of the same story. You hear Spinney, as Big Bird, onstage singing a lullaby to his wife, written by her father (the amusing take away from this feature is that Spinney forgot to take the lyrics with him into the suit, so someone had to “insert” them into the suit for him). Young Michael Jackson’s cameo next to Oscar the Grouch isn’t a very revelatory chapter, but it does put Spinney’s career into perspective, i.e., Jackson’s numerous ups and downs while the puppeteer stayed the course.

The most effective bonus feature is called “Big Bird’s Biggest Fan”. A teenager named Nick Bertsch, who suffers from cerebral palsy, gets his fan letter answered by Spinney, inviting him and his mother to visit him on the set of Sesame Street. Bertsch is beside himself with joy and Spinney can’t help but be reminded of his oldest brother who also suffered from cerebral palsy.

And then there are small anecdotes that I can’t help but find interesting, like the fact that Spinney and Henson were served by a grouchy waiter at a restaurant named Oscar’s. Taken together, I Am Big Bird and its bonus features display more of an arc of the man’s life rather than his career. But after watching the film, you’ll realize that you can’t talk about one without discussing the other. For all of its hair-splitting faults, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story falls nicely into Sesame Street‘s spirit of engaging the minds of the curious. If you are the kind of arts patron who does not want the curtain pulled back, this movie will not spoil anything for you. Only the source of the magic is exposed, not the magic itself.

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

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