(Photo: Ben Zucker/The Guardian)
In 1969, puppeteer Caroll Spinney donned the enormous Big Bird costume for the first season of Sesame Street. He still does 45 years later. Spinney writes in The Guardian that it led to fascinating experiences:
I once got a letter from Nasa, asking if I would be willing to join a mission to orbit the Earth as Big Bird, to encourage kids to get interested in space. There wasn’t enough room for the puppet in the end, and I was replaced by a teacher. In 1986, we took a break from filming to watch takeoff, and we all saw the ship blow apart. The six astronauts and teacher all died, and we just stood there crying.
Big Bird is a complex mechanism that requires considerable skill. Spinney describes how it works:
Big Bird is actually a puppet; my right arm is his neck, and my right hand moves his head, with my little finger controlling his eyebrows, moving them up and down to show when he’s thinking. I can change his expression by tilting his head toward the camera at a different angle. My left hand is in the left wing, which is linked to the right wing with fishing wire. I can’t see anything outside the suit when I’m in it, so I wear a little monitor strapped to my chest, which shows me what the viewers see at home.
In the early days, each scene was very simple and I could memorise my lines on the spot, but the show evolved and the storylines became much more elaborate as the years passed, so now I keep my cues and my lines taped to the inside of the costume.