|PERFORMER||Caroll Spinney 1969-present|
|Matt Vogel 1997-present (understudy)|
|DESIGN||Jim Henson designer|
| Kermit Love|
Caroly Wilcox builders
Big Bird is an 8-foot, 2-inch yellow bird who lives on Sesame Street. Since Sesame Street premiered in 1969, Big Bird has entertained millions of pre-school children and their parents with his wide-eyed wondering at the world. Big Bird is also a bird who makes friends easily.
The world-famous bird has been a central character on Sesame Street for the program's run, premiering in the first episode. The big yellow bird can roller skate, ice skate, dance, sing, write poetry, draw, and even ride a unicycle — pretty talented for a character described in the TV show's writer's guide as a 6-year-old. But despite this wide array of talents, he's prone to frequent misunderstandings, like thinking that the alphabet is one long word.
Big Bird helps children feel all right about not knowing everything because he himself does not know everything, and encourages them to inquire: a common Big Bird phrase in recent years has been "Asking questions is a good way of finding things out!" He also teaches other life, alphabet, and numerical lessons: "I guess it's better to be who you are. Turns out people like you best that way, anyway."
For many years his best friend Mr. Snuffleupagus (who Big Bird calls Snuffy) was deemed as imaginary by the adults on Sesame Street. Every time Snuffy would visit, he would coincidentally leave just before the adults arrived. Despite not being believed by the adults, Big Bird continued to assert that Snuffy was real. In the early 1980s, a string of high-profile child sexual abuse cases caused Sesame Workshop (then Children's Television Workshop) to eliminate this running gag, fearing that children would take to heart the message that, if adults don't believe something out of the ordinary even when they are telling the truth, they'd be just as well off to remain silent.
Big Bird's closest human friendship, however, for many years was with storekeeper Mr. Hooper, who made his birdseed milkshakes. Big Bird's inability to say the storekeeper's name correctly (most often rendered as "Mr. Looper") was a source of frustration, but they remained close. Big Bird took center stage on Sesame Street in the early 1980s, when the show dealt with the death of Mr. Hooper (necessitated by the death of Will Lee, the actor who played the role). Big Bird got confused when he tried to go into Hooper's Store to give Mr. Hooper his drawing Big Bird made of and for him. The adults, including Maria, David, Bob, Susan, Gordon, Olivia and Luis tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper is not coming back because he's dead, and when people die, they don't come back. ("Ever?" "No, never") Big Bird's realization that Mr. Hooper wasn't just gone temporarily, and Big Bird's acceptance of Mr. Hooper's death, have been hailed as a milestone in children's programming.
Big Bird starred on the big screen in the 1985 film Follow That Bird, in which he is sent by Miss Finch, a bird social worker, to live with a foster family of Dodos. He soon runs away from his new home to get back to Sesame Street and he is kidnapped and dyed baby blue by two ratty carnival-owners. He also had a role in the feature film The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland and starred in the feature-length specials Big Bird in China and Big Bird in Japan.
Big Bird also appeared in cameo roles in the films The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan and the television special A Muppet Family Christmas, and as a guest on The Muppet Show episode 318, plus a variety of outside TV appearances.
Big Bird's species
Big Bird's precise species is unknown, and over the years, there have been varying explanations for his unusual size and appearance:
- During a 1976 appearance on Hollywood Squares, host Peter Marshall asked, "What kind of a bird are you, by the way?" Big Bird's responds: "I'm a lark."
- When Big Bird is missing in the 1978 special Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, Oscar the Grouch reassures Maria, jokingly reminding her that Big Bird is "part homing pigeon."
- In a 1981 episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, King Friday XIII asked Big Bird if he's related to the cassowary. Big Bird replied "actually, I'm a golden condor."
- In the 1987 special A Muppet Family Christmas, Ma Bear refers to Big Bird as "the huge canary"; The Swedish Chef, seeing him as an upgrade from the Christmas Turkey, calls him "gobbla gobbla humungo."
- In the 2004 direct-to-video special A Celebration of Me, Grover, Big Bird says, "I wish I could fly like Super Grover. But my Grandpa was an emu bird. They can't fly. But they can run! Every fall, Grandpa ran south for the winter." Also Big Bird always says he can't fly, but because he's only 6 could be a reason why he can't fly.
- Oscar the Grouch sometimes refers to Big Bird as a "turkey" — an insult rather than a reflection of Big Bird's species. However, this does help Big Bird hitch a ride on a turkey truck in the 1985 film Follow That Bird; he talks his way onto the truck by claiming that "my friend Oscar always says that I'm a big turkey!" In a 2009 interview with TV Guide, Big Bird said that Oscar is "a little grouchy. He calls me a turkey. I'm not a turkey; I'm a lark."
- In the Sesame Street Live production Everyone Makes Music, after Big Bird sings "Rockin' Robin," Baby Bear remarks that Big Bird is one rockin' robin, and Big Bird remarks, "Actually I'm a canary."
- In a 2009 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live when host Jimmy Kimmel asks him if he has ever "googled" Big Bird replies: "Uh, no but I have an Uncle turkey who gobbles".
- Big Bird fielded the question, sampled from a Google search, in a 2017 video for Wired. He answers, "I've been told that I'm a lark, um, Oscar says that I'm part homing pigeon. But, I think I'm a 'bigus canarius.' Look it up."
Big Bird's family
Big Bird lives alone on Sesame Street, essentially adopted by the general neighborhood, with the adults often acting as stand-in parents (in particular, Susan, Gordon and Maria). In Sesame Street Home Video Visits the Hospital, when the hospital receptionist asks if Maria is Big Bird's mother, she replies, "Not exactly... kind of... yes."
As a baby, Big Bird was raised by his Granny Bird and his aunt, Nani Bird. As he became more self-reliant, Big Bird moved out on his own, to his nest on Sesame Street. Granny Bird remains a part of his life, and he often visits her in the books. When Big Bird's nest was destroyed in a hurricane in 2001, Big Bird called Granny for advice about building a new nest.
There is also scattered evidence of other relations. In a 1971 episode, Big Bird receives a coat from his mommy in the mail, and he babysits for his sister's egg in a 1972 episode. He also mentions a mother, father, and sister in the song "Tall Enough". It's unclear why Big Bird was raised apart from his nuclear family.
Other relatives include the following:
- Monroe, a cousin mentioned in a 1972 episode
- Auntie Maureen, Big Bird's aunt who lives on the loop in Chicago and looks exactly like her nephew except that she has blue eyes. Big Bird mentions her in episode 1576.
- Floyd, a cousin of Big Bird's who lives in Los Angeles and is a surfer. He looks like his New York cousin, only purple. Also made mention of in episode 1576.
- Uncle Ned, Big Bird sees a chicken mask that he says looks a little like his uncle.
- Cousins Bunscombe Bird (a baker), Bertha Bird (a police officer), Bagshot Bird (a fire chief), and Bathsheba Bird (a doctor), all pictured in the story "Big Bird Visits His Cousin" in The Sesame Street Library Volume 3
- Cousin Bubba, according to the Elmo's World episode "Penguins," lives at the South Pole. A scarf his Granny Bird knitted for Bubba is shown draped on a penguin.
- Cousin Bernie; a seagull, whom he has fish with every time they visit, as mentioned in Big Bird in Japan
- Big Bird's Grandfather; an emu bird, mentioned in A Celebration of Me, Grover
- Big Bird's uncle; a turkey, mentioned on his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. When he was shown the Google Doodle of his legs and was asked if he ever "googles", he replies "No, but I have an uncle turkey who gobbles."
- Big Bird's cousin Robin, mentioned and seen in the song "Spring is Here."
- One of his cousins, mentioned in episode 3336, is a roadrunner.
- Big Bird mentions having a tinikling for a cousin in a season 28 episode.
Additionally, the birds from several international co-productions have been designated as cousins of Big Bird:
Although Big Bird does know his family, in the book Big Bird's Bedtime Story, Luis tells Big Bird's back story, stating that a large egg was delivered to Hooper's Store one day, and the various residents of Sesame Street chose to build a nest for it and took care of it until it hatched. However, the story is probably not considered canon because it features a few characters who were not around when the series began (such as David and Luis).
Big Bird's age
The character was originally conceived as a kind of a yokel. It took most of the show's first season, but the writers and performers soon came to see Big Bird not as the "village idiot," but as a curious child. Spinney described him as "He was the too-big kid, much as I had been the too-little kid when I was his age. I suggested that we think of him as a child first learning to read and learning the alphabet, like our audience. That made him about 4½."
As Sesame Street's core audience has gotten younger, Big Bird has aged. "He's about 6," Spinney says, "arrested at 6."
For years Big Bird's age has been frozen at a particular point — he's six years old in the 1985 film Follow That Bird, and still six in the 1989 special Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting. Big Bird celebrated his sixth birthday (again) in the 1991 PBS pledge drive special Big Bird's Birthday or Let Me Eat Cake.
“They realized that Big Bird isn't the village idiot - he a child, with a wide-eyed view of the world. For a long time we played him at age 4. Now we see him as 6½ - and there he stays.”
Big Bird's birthday is March 20th.
Performing Big Bird
The Big Bird performer is completely enclosed within the costume and extends his right hand over his head to operate the head and neck of the puppet. The Muppeteer's left hand serves as the Bird's left hand, while the right hand is stuffed and hangs loosely from a fishing line that runs through a loop under the neck and attaches to the wrist of the left hand. Occasionally, a second puppeteer operates the right hand in scenes where Big Bird moves both of his hands or holds a prop.
When Spinney is performing on-location and cannot get a video feed on his television monitor, a hole is made in the bird suit to give Spinney the ability to see out in front of him. In these occasions, Big Bird wears a neck tie at all times to hide the hole. Don't Eat the Pictures, Big Bird in China and Big Bird in Japan are all examples of this.
As Caroll Spinney has aged, new performers have been trained to play Big Bird. Matt Vogel has been Spinney's primary understudy for over 20 years, doubling as Big Bird for live appearances and in occasional Sesame Street segments. Vogel has sometimes puppeteered Big Bird to Spinney's voice, and other times performed the voice himself, most prominently in the show's Journey to Ernie segments. Other Big Bird puppeteers have included Rick Lyon for the opening theme song of the show's 20th, 25th, and 33rd seasons, Noel MacNeal for several Macy's Parades and a 2015 appearance on The Tonight Show, and Peter Linz for the "Number of the Day" song and Shakespeare in the Park. As of Season 46, Caroll Spinney no longer performs Big Bird full-time. Vogel puppeteers the bird on-set most of the time, with Spinney either looping his dialogue later or reading off the script live in-sync with Vogel's puppetry, akin to Vogel's relationship with Jerry Nelson in his final years.
Caroll Spinney was sick during the taping of a few first season episodes, so Daniel Seagren performed Big Bird in those episodes. He also performed Big Bird when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, and in a number of Sesame Street Cast Tours in 1970. Jim Henson, who designed Big Bird, proved to be a possible candidate to perform the bird, as he was slender and over six feet tall. But Kermit Love, who built the costume, didn't think that he walked like a bird is supposed to walk. Henson then offered the part to Frank Oz, but since Oz hated performing full-body characters, he turned down the job.
For years, Caroll Spinney had a policy of refusing to pose for photographs in half of the bird suit. He later explained why in an interview for The New Yorker:
“Look magazine had an article on us in 1970. Big Bird was built a little differently then: He was strapped on me, and you couldn’t easily get out without an assistant reaching underneath and unbuckling things—now it slips right off, it’s much better. So I couldn’t get out. But you had to breathe after a while, so I was able to stick my head out between the body and the head, and they had a photo of me sticking my head out. And Jim Henson said, “Don’t let that ever happen again. You’re either bird or you, but no in between.”
- Big Bird's feathers are white turkey feathers, dyed yellow. There are approximately 4,000 feathers on the puppet. (According to the Count, he has over 5,961 feathers--he counted them himself.) According to Muppet wrangler Michelle Hickey, Big Bird's feathers are "hand-glued and backed with a ribbon that is hand-stitched on." His feathers are also rated from A to D, with only A and B rated feathers making up the puppet. Occasionally C rated feathers are used towards the bottom of the puppet. Hickey also states that the feathers are replaced every two weeks, or after the Muppet has been to an event.
- Jim Henson had originally planned on having the performer inside Big Bird perform the character by wearing the suit backwards, so that Big Bird can bend his knees backwards like a real bird.
- Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" in honor of Jim Henson (and Kermit) during Jim Henson's Memorial Service. During the song, he was close to tears. At the song's end, he looked up to the heavens and said, voice breaking, "Thank you, Kermit."
- Big Bird made a special guest appearance on an episode of Deal or No Deal, to help contestant Lamar Wilson overcome his childhood fear of the bird.
- Sesame Workshop included a "Muppetbook" section of Muppet bios in the digital press kit for 40th season of Sesame Street (posted on Sesameworkshop.org. On his profile, Big Bird listed chicken soup as one of his pet peeves.
- There were plans to have Big Bird fly on the Space Shuttle Challenger (specifically, on the exact same flight that ultimately ended with the destruction of the Challenger), but the sheer size of the puppet prevented these plans from reaching fruition. Instead, there was a plan to feature Big Bird's teddy bear Radar to fly on the Challenger, and Radar was even included on the original mission plan, but the plan was scrapped in favor of having teacher Christa McAuliffe fly on the ill-fated mission.
Awards & Honors
- Big Bird received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994.
- Big Bird was featured on a US postage stamp in 1999 and on postage stamps in Fiji, Kiribati, the Cayman Islands, and Samoa in 2000.
- Big Bird Through the Years
- Big Bird's nest
- Big Bird Filmography
- Big Bird books
- Big Bird Songs
- International Big Bird
- Big Bird (animated)
- Big Bird walk-arounds
- 2012 United States presidential election debates
- ↑ Borgenicht, David. Sesame Street Unpaved, Hyperion Books, 1998. page 37
- ↑ Hollywood Squares, 1976.
- ↑ Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, episode 1483: "Mister Rogers Talks about Competition". June 3, 1981.
- ↑ Borgenicht, David. Sesame Street Unpaved, Hyperion Books, 1998. page 34.
- ↑ Eng, Joyce. "Sesame Street and Big Bird Feel 40 Years Young", TVGuide.com. November 25, 2009.
- ↑ I Want to Go Home! (1985), Nothing to Do (1988), I Can't Wait Until Christmas (1989), Big Bird Visits Granny Bird (1991) and Fly Away with Big Bird (2006).
- ↑ Sesame Street, Episode 3979 and Episode 3980.
- ↑ Sesame Street Video Player
- ↑ 9.0 9.1 Spinney reveals "The Wisdom of Big Bird"
- ↑ Walker, Joseph. The Deseret News: "Meet the man behind Big Bird's beak". November 25, 1988.
- ↑ Lyon, Rick behind-the-scenes photos and information
- ↑ Personal communication by Anthony T.
- ↑ Jim Henson Archives, personal correspondence archived at 
- ↑ Durrett, Deanne The Importance of Jim Henson
- ↑ Spinney, Caroll The Wisdom of Big Bird, p. 39
- ↑ Spinney, Caroll Interview with Caroll Spinney
- ↑ Sesame Street 35 Years Anniversary Game
- ↑ Learning About Numbers
- ↑ Big Bird's Wrangler
- ↑ Spinney, Caroll The Wisdom of Big Bird, pp. 40-41.
- ↑ Jim Henson's Memorial Service running order.
- ↑ At the Carroll Spinney Muppet Vault, Copper Pot pictures related this story.
- New York Times "Big Bird Responds" November 9, 2009