Monday, September 7, 2009

The Wisdom of Big Bird by Caroll Spinney

Caroll Spinney with J. Millison. The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons from a Life in Feathers. New York, Villard, 2003.

The author portrays Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street”. The author began doing puppet shows as a child for six neighbors in 1942. His mother then bought him a puppet theater. He continued working at puppet shows through high school. He then went to college for commercial art studies and then joined the Air Force before graduating. Assigned to the desert and a 5:30 am to 2 0m schedule due to heat, he obtained an afternoon job at a local TV station making advertising cards. He talked the station manager into a weekly half hour children’s puppet show, “Rascal Rabbit.” It lasted a few months until he was transferred. Yet a desire to continue acting hit him and he knew then what he wanted to do. After military service, he returned to and graduated from college. He then found animation work. He had two local puppet shows on a Boston TV station. On one show, he performed in full body costumes, something that prepared him to his later work on “Sesame Street”. Yet he admit he “was basically phoning it in” as he desired something more interesting.

After attending the 1968 Puppeteers of American festival, he was inspired to create moving animated backgrounds. He built a 3 ½ foot high by 7 foot wide stage for $250 that required him to work on his knees, operating the puppets as well as handing the visuals and the sound. He presented his show at the next festival. Jim Henson saw his show. A spotlight ruined the image. He used humor to make up for the difficulties. Jim Henson, though, recognized what he was attempting and appreciated it. Henson asked Spinney to work on a new show he was creating, “Sesame Street”. Spinney accepted, even though it meant $7,000 a year less than what he made on a local show in Boston.

The early show was filmed in 16 millimeter film. The early shows didn’t have scripts. Spinney’s first line as Big Bird was his going to a girl on a man’s shoulders and stating “wow! You’re the tallest little girl I’ve ever seen.” Big Bird began as a comedic diversion.

Big Bird descended from an earlier Jim Henson puppet La Choy Dragon. It similar had a complex head puppet. Frank Oz was inside the La Choy Dragon costume and disliked being in the suit. He thus did not want to be in the Big Bird suit.

Spinney initially could see very little out the costume. Thus, Big Bird had trouble moving properly. A small TV monitor was placed inside the costume.

Big Bird was changed in the second season. The new image has been the same since.

Young children like continuity. In 2002, the show’s 32nd season, “Sesame Street” switched to being a show where children could find continuity. There was a 31% increase in viewership.

Spinney was considering what voice to use for Oscar the Grouch when he heard a New York cab driver with a voice he liked. That is the voice he chose. Oscar was popular and did the Dick Cavett Show, Flip Wilson Show, Hollywood Squares, and several variety shows.

Big Bird was put on a postage stamp, leading him to respond “I’m really delighted to be on a stamp without having to die first.”

Big Bird appeared with Bob Hope. The toured China, which upset Hope when he realized no one in China had heard of him. Spinney adlibbed some lines, including Big Bird telling Hole “I thought I had a funny looking beak.” Hope the adlibs and told Spinney to keep them in the act.

Spinney was not a good dancer and found it hard to dance in the Big Bird outfit. A Muppetter, Richard Hunt. Told Spinney to have Big Bird think he is a great dancer. Spinney discovered that his thinking he could dance allowed him to dance. Big Bird even got to dance with the Rockettes.

Jim Henson and Fran Oz would often work all night and sometimes work two days nonstop. They often had several projects going concurrently. Henson enjoyed working well with others. He always remained calm/

There are 20 different “Sesame Street” variations in different countries. None were permitted to have a Big Bird. The Chinese version insisted on having a Big Bird since they had already seen Big Bird when Spinney toured China. Spinner returned to China to show actor Da Niao how to be Big Bird for Chinese television.

As Spinney noted. “I may be the most unknown famous person in America” because people know who Big Bird is but not the person inside Big Bird. Of course, not everyone is impressed with this. He recalls telling a stranger in line once that he is Big Bird and the woman responded “well, I wouldn’t tell people that.”

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