“Sesame Street” has become such a fixture of American culture, it’s easy sometimes to forget just how radical it is. I honestly hadn’t given the program much thought for most of my adult life, but I rediscovered it not long ago thanks to my niece and nephew. The vast majority of children’s entertainment is overbearing noise designed to sell plastic crap to kids — and yet here’s a funky little oasis of learning and discovery, set in a wonderfully diverse community where folks of all colors, shapes and plumages look out for each other. Now that my sister’s kids have moved on to more grown-up stuff like superheroes and “Frozen,” I must confess that I kind of miss watching “Sesame Street” with them. It’s such an inclusive show, full of warmth and good feeling.
Those values are on vivid display in the unexpectedly moving new documentary “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story,” which opens at the Brattle Theatre this weekend. Directed by Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker, it’s a loving portrait of the man who has been inside that giant bird suit ever since “Sesame Street” debuted back in 1969. The now-81-year-old Spinney got his start in Boston back on the “Bozo The Clown” show, but first earned the admiration of Jim Henson during a disastrous one-man show at a puppeteering festival, where the Muppet maestro admired his grace under pressure.
It almost didn’t work out. Indeed, their first incarnation of Big Bird was a rather unappealing hayseed yokel bearing little resemblance to the icon we have grown to know and love. Spinney, at the time a bit of a loner with a melancholy temperament, wasn’t clicking with Henson’s tight-knit crew. He seriously considered chucking it all and leaving New York for good. I think we’re all glad he stayed.
He claims the key that finally unlocked the character was transforming Big Bird into “a big kid,” so that children watching could see their own concerns reflected in their gargantuan feathered friend. This is one of those wonderful accidents in which the perfect player found the perfect role, as it is all but impossible to observe the film’s interviews with Spinney and not be taken aback by the man’s extraordinary sensitivity, and the deeply unhappy childhood that seems still very much with him today. (Spinney’s wife Debra explains that “when Caroll speaks of something that hurt him, even if it were 50 years ago, it’s as if it were happening to him right now.”) That this vulnerability manages to come through an eight-foot-tall fluffy bird costume is testament to what a brilliant performer Caroll Spinney is. The word “genius” is not a reach, particularly when you consider the logistics.
Bet you’ve never stopped and thought for too long about what it takes to work that Big Bird costume, have you? Well for starters, there are those ribbed orange leggings and oversized feet — which in the archival 1970s behind-the-scenes footage Spinney wears while also rocking a Prince Valiant haircut and goatee — making him look like reject from Studio 54. Meanwhile, inside that massive yellow-feathered enclosure, Spinney has his right arm extended upwards to operate Big Bird’s beak, simultaneously controlling the eyes with his pinky finger. His left arm is down inside the bird’s, also maneuvering the unoccupied right arm via a high-tech device known in the industry as fishing wire.
Did I mention yet that he can’t actually see out of this thing? Spinney has a video monitor strapped to his chest, but it’s only displaying what the show’s cameras can deliver. So he’s navigating his movements around the “Sesame Street” set inside of this giant contraption, for all intents and purposes doing the opposite of whatever visual information he’s being given. (Imagine trying to walk somewhere, except you can only see how people standing on the other side of the street are seeing you.) Oh, and he also keeps his script taped inside the bird suit at eye-level, with his lines circled. Because he has to actually act while doing all this, too.
Speaking as someone who has enormous difficulty trying to walk and chew gum at the same time, the amount of coordination it must take simply to operate this eight-foot behemoth is completely beyond me, let alone doing so while also giving a performance that has captured the hearts and imaginations of children for the past 40-odd years. It’s a superhuman feat, and “I Am Big Bird” doesn’t shy from the fact that this magic didn’t always happen smoothly. The perfectionist puppeteer’s not infrequent clashes with “Sesame Street” director Jon Stone are well-documented here, and perhaps account for Spinney’s other iconic character: Oscar The Grouch.
One of the show’s staffers laughs when pointing out that Oscar probably wouldn’t be approved by PBS in this day and age. But there’s something to the theory that these two icons have served as a yin and a yang for Caroll Spinney — he embodies both the gentle, childlike bird and the growling hater who lives in garbage. Much is made of the fact that all the other Muppeteers develop intense camaraderie working in close quarters together, often arm in arm under the stage. Meanwhile Spinney stands alone, either inside Big Bird’s suit or Oscar’s trash can.
"I Am Big Bird" turns out to be quite an emotional film, especially for those of us who grew up watching “Sesame Street” (a demographic that now includes just about everyone under fifty, I presume.) The documentary is full of fun tales from our old friends “Bob,” “Luis,” “Maria,” “Gordon” and “Susan,” but we also remember when cast member Will Lee passed away, so the gang had to talk Big Bird (and by extension all the children in the audience) through the finality of death. It was a beautiful teachable moment, and still one of television’s finest hours.
We also learn that back in the eighties, NASA was concerned that kids were no longer as jazzed about the space program as they used to be. They considered sending Big Bird up into space on a shuttle flight along with the astronauts, but after contacting Spinney it was determined that the eight-foot costume was too unwieldy for space travel. NASA wound up sending a teacher instead: Christa McAuliffe.
The most heartbreaking sequence, of course, concerns the unexpected death of Jim Henson in 1990. I’d wager there are few readers who won’t remember Big Bird’s shattering performance of “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” at Henson’s televised memorial service. Re-contextualized here, it is stunning to see Spinney, stricken with the loss of his longtime mentor and close friend, suiting up and performing through the tears, working that enormous contraption and making the abrupt, cruel sadness a little easier for all of us to bear.
But as “I Am Big Bird” reveals, this is perfectly in keeping with the generosity of a guy who had a rotten childhood and devoted the rest of his life to making kids feel happier, safer and more welcome than he ever was.
Caroll Spinney, his wife Debra and directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker will be in attendance at The Brattle Theatre on Friday night for the 5:30 and 7:30 shows.
Over the past 16 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at splicedpersonality.com.