Fans of Sesame Street take heed and rejoice. There’s a yellow-feathered homecoming of sorts today (Friday) at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. Two filmmakers who got their starts in Boston are screening a new documentary about the gentle and fascinating man behind the world’s most famous bird.
I had the chance to speak with Massachusetts native Caroll Spinney about the film and the beloved avian he embodies, and as if on cue, he launched into character.
"Hello, I’m Big Bird," Spinney said in that one-of-a-kind voice before reverting back to his human self, "I mean, I’m Caroll Spinney — and I am Big Bird."
Spinney has been climbing into his signature orange legs and pear-shaped torso suit for 46 years. Now 80, he told me he just finished filming "Sesame Street" episode No. 4,612.
The new documentary, aptly titled “I Am Big Bird,” reveals how intertwined the full-body puppeteer is with his character — and so does having a conversation with him.
"Big Bird’s voice is just my own voice going up an octave higher," he explained, then illustrated by saying hello both ways, ending with a Bird Bird-style, "Here I am," punctuated with a, "heh heh."
A Love Story
The documentary is really a love story between Caroll Spinney, his wife Deb, Big Bird and the rest of the world, according to filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker. They're both in their mid-30s, and grew up watching "Sesame Street" and the show's various specials with their families. LaMattina said working on the documentary shot them back in time to being 6-year-olds.
"For me ‘Big Bird In China’ was that special that we watched religiously growing up and wore out the tape," he explained, followed by Walker, who said, "I forgot how much of an impact it had. But then it’s almost timeless — you know, you see it, and it’s like, 'bam! Wow, this really changed my life!'"
LaMattina and Walker channel the world's fascination with "Sesame Street" and Big Bird through creative use of archival TV clips and newly gathered interviews. In one scene, a '70s-era reporter says, "If you think John Travolta and 'Saturday Night Fever' have taken the country by storm, wait until you hear the album that’s being cut on the other side of this door." Then he walks into a recording studio where he asks Robin Gibb, "What is a Bee Gee doing on 'Sesame Street'?" The artist replies, "Well, 'Sesame Street Fever' is the answer."
It's Not Easy Being Yellow
The film captures the triumphs and hardships Spinney encountered as he became Big Bird: his puppetry learning curve, a depressing divorce from his first wife, thoughts of suicide. But also the life-changing moment when Spinney met the love of his life, his second wife, Deb.
Director LaMattina says grownups have been coming to the film's screenings and Q&As because they feel a deep connection to their childhood friend, but they often leave feeling less alone with their own challenges and losses after learning about Spinney's trajectory.
"Caroll has lived a long life of lots of ups and downs, and those are the moments that made him who he is, and those moments in turn made Big Bird and Oscar who they are," LaMattina mused, "and so we just want people to take away an appreciation for who Caroll is and shine the spotlight on him a little bit in this film."
When LaMattina and Walker first approached Deb and Caroll Spinney with the idea for their documentary, the couple told them they had filmed pretty much their entire lives, and they offered the filmmakers access to their vast trove of pictures and home movies.
"Dave and I looked at each other and we were like, ‘Yes, we would absolutely love to look at it and use it,' " Walker recalled. "In the end, we probably went through 500 hours of archival footage and thousands of photographs."
A Life Together Captured In Home Movies And Photos
That process started five years ago. Now some of the images take audiences back to Spinney’s pre-Big Bird years. He was born in Waltham on the day after Christmas, 1933 (hence the name Caroll). Then, his family moved to Acton. When he was 8, Spinney found a little monkey puppet at a garage sale. In the documentary, Spinney recalls how delighted his mother was.
She grew up in England watching the popular puppet show "Punch and Judy." For Christmas that year, Spinney's mom made him his own puppet set and went on to write him scripts.
“She didn’t realize that she was giving me my career," he reflects in the film. "She was a great mom.”
While Spinney’s mother was an encouraging artist, his abusive father was not. Spinney wanted to pursue puppetry and educational television — but he also needed to escape his father — so he left the Art Institute of Boston to enlist in the Korean War. In 1958, he returned home and worked on a show here called "Judy and Goggle" with local actress Judy Valentine. Then came "Bozo’s Big Top," where Spinney worked with Bozo actor and Bostonian Frank Avruch, who says in the documentary, "He just has a knack of creating characters and making them come alive."
Sensational And Inspirational
Spinney’s life changed forever when he ran into "Sesame Street" creator Jim Henson.
"He discovered me at a puppet festival," Spinney remembers. "He said, 'Would you like to join me?' I couldn’t even believe it. To me, the Muppets were the epitome of really great puppetry."
Henson cast Spinney to play Big Bird in New York — along with another famous "Sesame Street" character: Oscar the Grouch.
'Get Away From My Trash Can'
If you're surprised by this revelation, you're not alone. When they found out, the filmmakers were too.
"That was a shock," LaMattina admitted. "But it’s sort of also a blessing for us as filmmakers, because Oscar is so funny!"
Walker recalled a funny Oscar moment they had together during a meeting. "I’m having a conversation with Caroll about his gluten allergy, and about how my wife is allergic to gluten. And then out of nowhere Oscar (meaning Spinney doing Oscar) just goes, “Boring!”
Revealed On The Big Screen, After All These Years
Spinney is warm, open and a natural entertainer. While he's worked on plenty of films, up until now, he says he’s never seen his face on the big screen.
"Big Bird’s face was up there — and Oscar — but not me. So Deb and I were kind of shy about being interviewed on camera," Spinney said.
Now the career puppeteer says he and his wife Deb are tickled by the final result, which shows how much they're still in love.
"It’s just fun to see her face on the screen," Spinney commented. "She has the nicest face."
Before signing off from our interview Caroll Spinney said he and Deb are excited to come back home to Boston — with his feathered and furry best friends — for tonight’s screening at the Brattle Theater. He thanked me in his own voice, then shifted into Big Bird mode.
"We have to fly away," the iconic character explained.
"We won’t really fly, will we Big Bird?" Spinney asked.
"Well, no, I was just exaggerating," Big Bird replied.
Then, in true form, Oscar the Grouch added his two cents: "Have a rotten day," he said, adding one of his, "heh heh hehs."