Written by Patrick McNamara
There I was staring at my screen and procrastinating doing any real work that required any effort whatsoever when I happened upon an ad for a new documentary with the subtitle, “The Caroll Spinney Story." There was a screening of the film that very night and Caroll Spinney himself would be attending. I'm not normally an impulsive person (although I did get a Michael Jordan tattoo at this parlor in a strip mall once and they weren't kidding when they said tattoos last forever) but made a decision on the spot that I had to go to this. So later that evening I did, but not before tucking my kids into bed. My oldest, seeing I was actually wearing proper pants for once, asked “Where are you going, Dad?" Before turning off the light I said, “I'm going to meet Big Bird." That either made me the coolest or cruelest, I don't know.
Caroll Spinney (eighty-two years young) has played Big Bird for forty-six (!) years and to this day everybody's wide-eyed lovable yellow friend, perpetually stuck at six-years-old, is still one of the most famous characters in the world. He might have even cost Mitt Romney the last Presidential election because nobody fucks with Big Bird. But you already know all that. Who you may not know is the man inside the eight-foot bird. There's a real guy in there.
(via the author's private vinyl collection)
“I Am Big Bird" is the sweet, sometimes sad, and uplifting story of Mr. Spinney - puppeteer, vaudevillian actor, and lifelong artist. The ninety-minute film tells the history of Mr. Spinney's talent; he started making his own puppets when he was eight-years-old and he has painted every day of his entire adult life. It speaks of persistence; he almost quit Big Bird in the beginning because he felt he wasn't good enough for Jim Henson, and he wasn't, until he “began to soar." And it is a love story about Mr. Spinney and his wonderfully supportive wife, Debra.
There were heartbreaking moments in the film - Mr. Spinney's cold and sometimes abusive father, the bullying of his youth (“someday you bastards are going to brag that you knew me"), the divorce from his first wife and separation from his one-year-old son that had Mr. Spinney contemplating suicide, and having to say goodbye to the little Chinese girl who acted in “ Big Bird in China" and who in short time became part of his family.
And Big Bird himself was not immune to sadness. I thought all my tears for the death of Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street had been all used up when I was five, but after the documentary revisited the now classic episode where Big Bird realizes what dying actually means I was surprised to find I still had a few tears left at age thirty-six. Sometimes you can't tell them tomorrow, Big Bird.
There was also the moment Big Bird eulogized Mr. Spinney's boss, mentor, and great friend at Jim Henson's funeral in 1990. He was 53. This one still hurts.
And there was the story that Big Bird was originally tapped to go up in the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 because NASA wanted more children to watch and get interested in space exploration so they asked Mr. Spinney and he said yes. A month before the launch they realized Big Bird's suit was too big for the ship so they instead asked a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, to ride instead. As tragic as the Challenger explosion was I can't imagine what seeing Big Bird explode in the sky would have done to an entire generation of children watching on television. I was one of them.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when Mr. Spinney was being given a particularly hard time, seemingly unwarranted, by one of Sesame Street's original producers, Jon Stone. Normally mild-mannered, an exasperated Mr. Spinney stood up and was about to walk off the set when actor Emilio Delgado (aka Luis aka he was always my favorite of the humans) stepped in and rushed over to the production booth to confront Stone. As Luis himself says in the film, “I could have lost my job, I guess, but Luis is very protective of Big Bird." Further proof that LUIS RULES and Caroll Spinney and Big Bird are one. As Mr. Spinney says in the film, “I may not own Big Bird but I own his soul."
After the screening, Mr. Spinney, his wife, Debra, and the filmmakers - Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker - sat down amid standing ovation applause to take questions from the audience. There were several because who doesn't want to talk to Big Bird? Asked what he thought of the documentary experience, Mr. Spinney said tonight was the first time he had ever seen himself on the big screen. The times he was in "the bird" don't count.
It was also during this time that a special guest made an appearance from a suitcase that, until now, had been resting on Debra's lap. ("PLEASE LET THERE BE A MUPPET IN THERE," I thought like everybody else in room, probably.
And, of course, there was.
BOOM! Caroll Spinney is also OSCAR THE GROUCH. Oscar was kind of a dick during his portion of the talk and we all absolutely loved it, of course.
To close the evening, Mr. Spinney said he would be happy to take pictures with people and I believe every single person took him up on this offer. A long queue formed in the lobby and I counted one child among us - one. We were all a bunch of grownups giddy about getting to meet Big Bird and nobody even tried to look cool about it.
“I will stay until every person who wants a picture gets one," Mr. Spinney said to us. True to his word, he did.
“It's nice to meet you, Mr. Spinney," I said, nervous and star-struck as hell when I approached.
“It's nice to meet you too," he said.
I gave my phone to my nearest neighbor to take our picture (I totally went to this by myself that's how much I wanted to meet Big Bird). Oscar didn't say anything to me as I stood by him because he's obviously kind of a dick but I patted his head anyway. Everybody knows Oscar secretly has a heart of gold.
When I left the theater I did a little dance because HOLY SHIT I JUST MET BIG BIRD and I couldn't wait to tell my kids* and my family and my friends and everybody, basically. And it was great to finally get to know Caroll Spinney. There's a real guy in there - the soul of Big Bird - and for the last forty-six years he's been a really nice six-year-old friend.
*don't feel bad my kids missed out on this, I took them to see Yo Gabba Gabba Live! not too long ago I'm a great dad they're fine