For the Bird
My crazed obsession with all things Sesame Street continues. I've been eagerly checking in to Google every day to see how they've done their Sesame-themed logo in honor of the show's 40th anniversary (they've been doing it for the past week). Now the New York Times has run an interview with one of my personal heroes...Big Bird! There are also some great questions and comments from Caroll Spinney, the 75-year-old puppeteer who has played Big Bird (and Oscar the Grouch) since the beginning. Because I love it so, I'm reproducing it in its entirety here. Sunny days!
On Tuesday, “Sesame Street” will celebrate its 40th anniversary with the usual array of songs and life lessons about numbers and nutrition and a special guest, the first lady, Michelle Obama, on hand to help out.
Meanwhile, Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, and Carol-Lynn Parente, executive producer, are answering questions from Times readers this week.
Mr. Spinney has embodied both the yin and the yang of “Sesame Street” since the show’s debut. Below, in the guise of everyone’s favorite Giant Golden Condor (who knew?), he responds to queries about Big Bird’s weight, about his dreams and about the existential nature of Mr. Snuffleupagus. Mr. Spinney, the puppeteer, and Ms. Parente also weigh in where appropriate.
Dear Big Bird,
I love you. How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Is Big Bird a boy or a girl?
Hey Big Bird! How much do you weigh?
“I’m light as a feather!”
Dear Mr. Bird,
Do you know of any bigger birds? If not, what’s the next biggest?
Hi Big Bird! What species of bird are you?
“A Giant Golden Condor but I’m really a lark.”
Hi Big Bird!!! I’m a huge fan. My question: Why are you yellow??
“Because my mother and father were yellow.”
Are you naturally blond? In one photo, I thought I spotted a few dark feather-roots. Also, do you plan to go gray naturally? If so, will this just be your head, or your entire body?
“Of course I’m a natural blond! I’ll never go gray I’ll always be blond, just like my mommy.”
Dear Big Bird,
Why is the Mexican Big Bird green? Are you related to him?
“Yes, Abelardo is a parrot and he is my cousin!”
Hi Big Bird! What is your favorite letter and why?
“B! On my mailbox it says ‘bb’ and it stands for Big Bird — and that’s why.”
Dear Big Bird: Do you sleep on a tree and what do you dream about at night?
—Gwen, age 3
“I sleep in a nest and I dream about other birds.”
Hey Big Bird! What’s your favorite book and why?
“The Audubon Book of Birds.”
Big Bird, do you have a favorite song?
“LA, LA, LA.”
My kids insist that Cookie Monster has been transformed into “Veggie Monster” for the sake of political correctness in our overweight world. Please say it isn’t so!
“It isn’t so! Cookie Monster still loves to eat cookies. But now he also likes to eat healthy foods like carrots, and knows it’s alright to eat foods like cookies sometimes.”
A question for Oscar: Does he still have that elephant in his dustbin?
—Linus F (Trinidad & Tobago)
“Fluffy, yes. Fluffy still lives in my trash can — not my dust bin.
Hello Mr. Bird,
Snuffy was always a figment of your imagination. After revisiting the show during a wave of nostalgia, I noticed everyone is now friends with Snuffy. How did the change come about?
“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.”
CAROL-LYNN PARENTE: “It was always unclear whether Snuffy was real or just conveniently absent when anyone other than Big Bird was around. We decided to confirm that Snuffy was in fact a real friend of Big Bird in the mid ’80s when there were several incidents of child abuse in the news and there was some concern whether the investigations done with children could be believed. We didn’t want to model the adults in the community not believing Big Bird and an episode was written for his big reveal.”
How do Muppeteers sustain arms-over-head positions for extended periods required for “Sesame Street” segments? Are there fans in Big Bird’s (and others) costume?
—Meg in DC
MS. PARENTE: “Puppeteers are in extraordinary condition to sustain such physical performances. There are not fans or cooling devices in the Big Bird or Snuffy puppets. We limit the amount of time the performers can be in costume by taping the show in shorter segments that all get put together in post-production.”
Have improvements in technology inside the BB costume made your job easier over the years? I’m thinking of your vision, microphones and what I must assume is the high temperature inside the costume under studio lights and long takes?
CAROLL SPINNEY: “Jim Henson rigged up the monitor and the harness and the microphone that I used and the set-up is exactly the same as it was from day one. Forty years later, I still use the same system but I have replaced the batteries. Believe it or not, the costume is not as hot as you would think — and I take off the top feathers approximately every seven to ten minutes so I get to cool off between takes.”
How do you feel about the changes that have been made to “Sesame Street” over the years? Also, how do you feel about the fact that when the DVD set of the early “Sesame Street” years was released, it was labeled as not suitable for young children? (I was a young child then, and I don’t think it did me any harm!)
MS. PARENTE: “I love that the changes to ‘Sesame Street’ let a new generation of children feel like this show was made for them. This isn’t their mommy or daddy’s ‘Sesame Street,’ but it does still have everything their parents loved about the show. The humor, the characters, the neighborhood that is ‘Sesame Street’ is still intact, but the visual and audio style reflect what appeals to children today.
“As for the label at the top of our ‘Old School’ DVD releases, the warning is a product of the changing times. There was and is nothing about that content that is harmful, however, it was made in a different time, when for instance, we would have modeled children riding bicycles without helmets and riding in cars without seat-belts — things we would no longer choose to do for the safety reasons.”
I know that excerpts from the first seasons are now available on DVD. But are there any plans to put entire episodes on DVD, say of the first five or six shows? Also, will the first two record albums ever be available on CD?
MS PARENTE: “Our ‘Old School’ DVD releases actually include several full show episodes from the early years. It is possible that we will continue that series with additional releases of more shows.
“We are currently exploring release of several of our best selling albums for CD or digital download release. Stay tuned!”