March 20th is Big Bird’s sixth birthday. You may be wondering how he could be only six years old when he was the first Muppet on a show that has been on for over forty years, but the thing is that Big Bird (or just “Bird” as his friends like to call him) is always six years old. So although the Sesame Street favorite has been around for a whopping 41 years (meaning most of our readers had the chance to grow up watching him and that he got to meet Patricia Nixon while she was still the first lady), we at Neatorama are proud to say happy birthday to one of our favorite perpetual children.
Big Bird’s character was originally supposed to be more of a village idiot than a neighborhood friend, but within the first season, the writers and performers quickly started seeing a lot more potential in the innocent and sweet bird. They started envisioning him more as a curious child than a yokel and quickly morphed him more into a role model for the youngsters at home.
Big Bird’s young mind is always inquisitive and he always asks questions as a result. This not only gives kids a chance to learn the answers to questions he asks, but also teaches them that it’s good to ask about things they don’t understand. Big Bird helps children understand that it’s OK to not understand everything because even someone who’s eight feet and two inches tall still doesn’t know everything.
This also helps the character share morality lessons with kids without preaching to them because he is only reflecting on something he just learned.
All of Life’s Lessons
Big Bird continues to be one of the most prominent characters on Sesame Street. As such, he is often given the opportunity to teach some of the hardest life lessons to the home viewers.
Big Bird’s star role in the early 80’s episode about the death of Mr. Hooper was considered to be a milestone in children’s programming and may have been part of the reason he was selected to play such a key role in Jim Henson’s funeral, where he sang “It’s Not Easy (Being Green)” in memory of Jim, who created the Muppet family and played Kermit. At the end of the song, during which he almost broke into tears, he looked up at the ceiling and quietly said, “thank you Kermit.”
One of the other important lessons Bird taught kids was that just because adults don’t immediately believe you about something doesn’t mean you should stop trying to tell them about it. This came about when the producers of the show decided that the long running gag about Mr. Snuffleupagus never appearing when the show’s adults were around. When a string of sexual abuse cases hit the public eye in the early 80’s the staff worried that the gag might encourage kids to think that adults won’t believe them if they talk about something out of the ordinary, so finally Snuffy actually made himself known to the show’s adult characters. Perhaps Big Bird sums up the message best:
“Snuffy’s my best friend, he was never imaginary! It was just a matter of poor timing. Sometimes I would ask Snuffy to wait for me in one spot, then while I was away he would leave to go put on a tie or brush his teeth. And then when I came back he would be gone! But then one day he finally stuck around, and everyone could see that my friend Snuffy was real after all. I was so glad that day, because then I knew that my grown-up friends on Sesame Street would always believe me when I told them something that unusual but still true.”
He’s A Little Ahead of His Age
Just because he’s only six and a giant bird doesn’t mean Big Bird doesn’t have an array of skills and abilities. He can sing, dance, roller skate, ice skate, ride a unicycle, draw and write poetry. He also lives on his own in the nest on 123 Sesame Street. Well, actually, he does live with one friend, his teddy bear Radar, named for Walter “Radar” O’Reilly from M*A*S*H who was also naive and kept a teddy bear friend. Although Gary Burghoff gave Big Bird Radar during a guest appearance, later episodes claim that he was actually a gift from Mr. Hooper.
What Kind of A Bird Is He Anyway?
Big Bird’s species will likely remain a mystery through the ages, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been hinted at. He most commonly seems to say he is a lark, which started during a 1976 appearance on Hollywood Squares. He even reiterated this fact just last year in an interview with TV Guide. In the same interview though, he also calls himself a golden condor, an origin that started back in a 1981 episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
While many people assume he is supposed to be a canary because of his yellow coloring, it was only said by Ma Bear during the 1987 filming of A Muppet Family Christmas. The Swedish Chef responds to this one by looking at the bird and calling him “gobbla gobbla humungo.”
Oscar the Grouch seems to have his own theories about Big Bird. While he often calls him a giant turkey, he also called him “part homing pigeon” in the 1978 Christmas Eve on Sesame Street special. While his calling Bird a turkey is supposed to be an insult, it actually helped him hitch a ride on a turkey truck in the 1985 movie Follow That Bird because Big Bird was able to explain that "my friend Oscar always says that I'm a big turkey!" In fact, this is actually true to some extent, since only turkey feathers are used for the character’s costume.
Perhaps the best answer for Big Bird’s species though is that he’s a bit of a mixed bag bird. After all, he does have his own scientific name, "Bigus canaries,” according to the book Sesame Street Unpaved. And, in the 2004 special A Celebration of Me, Gover, 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."
Of course, everyone’s just going to see what they want to see. The Egyptian god Osiris called Big Bird an ibis during the movie Don’t Eat the Pictures. Personally, I like to think that he’s a canary emu mix.
The Effects of Aging
Just because Big Bird is only six doesn’t mean he hasn’t aged quite a bit throughout the years. Of course, his species must age rather well because he seems to be looking better than ever. The original Big Bird was designed to be clumsy and goofy to go along with his yokel behavior. He had googly pupils on occasion and rather raggedy feathers. His puppeteer, Caroll Spinney remarked on this original incarnation by saying, "He didn't look too keen. I thought he was one of the ugliest things I'd ever seen!"
Of course, this goofy design didn’t quite work out for the eternal child character they decided he should take on, so near the end of the first season, he was given a makeover. He received more feathers on his head and his eyelids were made to raise and lower. The puppeteers figured out a great way to enable him to move his right arm, which was originally pinned to his side (Caroll Spinney has to use one arm to move his mouth and the other for his left arm, which left his right arm useless). By the second season, his feathers were better groomed and they were a more constant shade of his trademark golden yellow hue.
In season eight, Big Bird was given three bright yellow highlights around his head (like those seen in the image above by Flickr user Anthony Grimley), which he maintains to this day, although the color and size shift through the years. In season ten, Big Bird received a more rounded head and a more shapely neck that largely resembles the current inceptions of the puppet since.
The costume itself is partially assembled by American & Fancy Feather. Because 90% of the feathers selected for the costume are rejected, the company’s owner, Anthony Trento, says Big Bird is his toughest customer.
Puppeteering the Giant
Big Bird is obviously one mammoth of a Muppet, so controlling him is quite a big job. Fortunately, the team has worked out some ingenious innovations to make Big Bird as lifelike as possible. For the most part, Big Bird is controlled by Caroll Spinney who uses his right arm to control big bird’s head, eyes and mouth movements and his left arm to control Bird’s left wing.
As I said earlier, the first version of the puppet was forced to have his hand tied down because it couldn’t be controlled. They fixed this first issue by tying fishing line to the puppeteer’s arm so the right arm would do the opposite of the left arm. When the arms need to be moved independently in movies, a green screen tool is used so a second puppeteer can stand behind the character and move his arm and then later be edited out of the shot. This cannot be done on the Sesame Street set because it is too vivid of a background.
That’s not the only major change the puppeteer has seen in his costume. While the early incarnations of Big Bird had a small mesh screen in the front of the neck for Caroll to see from, this was latter sealed off to make things look even more accurate. Instead, Mr. Spinney uses a video monitor in the front of the suit to navigate his way around. He says he also includes the scripts in his costume to make it easier to remember his marks.
When Big Bird performs on-location, he cannot use the monitor suit though, so the team uses a neck tie or tuxedo shirt to hide the screen on the front of the costume.
Image by Luis Rubio [Flickr]
Jim Henson was originally slated to play Big Bird and the first costume was actually built for him, but the man who built the costume told Henson that he wasn’t walking the way a bird should stroll, so Jim decided not to play the part. He then offered the role to Frank Oz, who is known for playing Bert, Grover and Cookie Monster, as Big Bird, but Oz refused largely due to claustrophobia related to being in the giant suit. Fortunately, Caroll Spinney took on the character and helped shape the creature into the endearing bird we know and love today.
Spinney has played Big Bird almost consistently since the show’s inception in 1969. Daniel Seagren performed in his place a few times when he was sick and also on a few appearances on other shows and in recent years, Rick Lyon and Matt Vogel (the main understudy) have taken on apprentice roles in anticipation of 76 year-old Caroll’s eventual retirement.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always loved Big Bird, and so do millions of other Americans. After all, you have to be pretty popular to have your own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (pictured above thanks to Flickr user GrahamKing) and to be featured on a postage stamp. I hope you all enjoyed learning about the character that helped so many of us learn!
Sources: SesameStreet.org, New Yorker, Muppet Wikia, New York Times, Wikipedia, Jim Henson: The Works