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Big Bird Evolution
June 20, 2011 7:12 AM   Subscribe

Big Bird Through The Years If you grew up watching Sesame Street, how Big Bird is "supposed" to look to you depends greatly on when you did the watching. He started out looking pretty scruffy looking, as seen one of his more famous songs. This song features a Big Bird closest to the one I know. The puppeteer behind Big Bird is Caroll Spinney who received a Lifetime Achievement Award during the 2006 Daytime Emmy Awards.

In addition to performing as Big Bird, Spinney also performed as Oscar the Grouch. Once you know, it's obvious, but this blew my mind.
posted by Deathalicious (38 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
He really started going grey in the late '70s.
posted by amro at 7:29 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


So right after kindergarten and about a year before I came to America from the Soviet Union (somewhere around 1989-1990) I was put into "English School" instead of regular public school. I can only assume that these were institutions for the children of hopeful emigres to the New World. I can't say for sure, of course; my mother, born in '57, had English instruction through her school career and my great-grandmother taught English in fuck-off Siberia at some point, so its not like being taught English was some sort of revolutionary Communism-busting idea.

Anyway, one of my most vivid childhood memories was being shown a Big Bird doll. It was just so different than the rest of my toys which were, while fun and all, reeking of utilitarian design. Race cars and tanks and little Jeeps and airplanes and cowboys and Indians (thanks, Perestroika) and stuffed animals and a little plastic skeleton, but nothing as straight-up weird as Big Bird. Here was a toy representative of nothing. I got the same feeling some time later when I saw a bootleg/smuggled Ninja Turtles backpack being sent via immigrant to my cousin who had already moved to the states. And later still when American cartoons -- Muppet Babies, Duck Tales and Rescue Rangers -- made it onto Soviet television.

And that's what America meant to me when I was six: land of the fuckin' weird.

Also, as a child my mother had a mechanical toy with little dudes going up and down a tree to retrieve the pineapples on top.
posted by griphus at 7:31 AM on June 20, 2011 [24 favorites]


I really like the Big Bird from this early Jack Davis poster. Shame I couldn't find the color version online; Oscar is orange.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:32 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am slightly discomfited by the description of 78-82's "more shapely neck". If Rule 34 is applicable here, I don't want to know.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:33 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


scruffy big bird was much cooler
posted by nathancaswell at 7:33 AM on June 20, 2011


Within my lifetime, Oscar was orange, and there was a highly suspect robot loose on Sesame Street.
posted by sonascope at 7:34 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I loved Big Bird when I was a kid. :)

Here's a cute short scene from The West Wing. (For some perspective into the muppet's height, Alison Janney is 6' tall.)

Also, Big Bird singing "It's Not Easy Being Green" at Jim Henson's memorial was one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever seen.
posted by zarq at 7:36 AM on June 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


Wow, in retrospect Big Bird looked weird as hell.
posted by ghharr at 7:48 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


hydrophonic, I think I have the original late '60s/early '70s color books that look like the Jack Davis pictures you link -- If I can find them, I'll try to post some scans. And yes, Oscar is dark orange.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:49 AM on June 20, 2011


From wikipedia:
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. The right hand thus does the opposite of the left hand: as the left hand goes down, the right hand is pulled up by the fishing line. For some of the Journey to Ernie segments, a second puppeteer (usually Jim Martin) controls Big Bird's right hand. He is concealed by dressing in a body suit the same color as their chroma key background (something that obviously cannot be done on the main Sesame Street set).[citation needed] Big Bird's body suit weighs ten pounds, and his head weighs four pounds. According to writer Louise Gikow, the heat inside the suit is "unbearable, and it's extraordinarily difficult to hold Big Bird's head".

The costume is partially assembled by company American & Fancy Feather, using the tail feathers from turkeys; as the feathers are rarely clean, company owner Anthony Trento calls the Big Bird costume his "toughest customer". Sesame Workshop is said to reject roughly 90 percent of all the feathers selected for use on the costume.

posted by zarq at 7:53 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I met Caroll Spinney (and Oscar)! He's from around these parts. Boy, is he a nice guy. They kept him there too long signing autographs and I felt really bad, because he is not a young guy anymore. But a great one.
posted by theredpen at 7:53 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oscar was orange...

Listen closely the next time that you hear Oscar speak-- he has a fairly pronounced New England accent (really!).

I imagine that Oscar was raised in a garbage can in a Southie project, which is enough to make anyone irritable. He probably dyed himself orange when he first moved away as an extreme rejection of the South Boston Irish Catholic culture, marking himself with the one color that would most enrage his neighbors if he ever found himself wavering and considering a return. Then perhaps he made peace with his heritage, gained the confidence to know he had left for good, and allowed his natural green to come back.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:54 AM on June 20, 2011 [14 favorites]


Oscar is based on a NYC taxi driver, actually, but as the puppeteer is from New England, he might have a little blending going on there.
posted by theredpen at 7:57 AM on June 20, 2011


Apparently Spinney didn't like to study the Sesame Street scripts, preferring to prepare right before taping, and often while in costume.

And a few images from the Muppet wiki: a drawing of what the person might look like inside Big Bird, someone in partial BB costume, and Spinney sitting down in Big Bird legs.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:57 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I imagine that Oscar was raised in a garbage can in a Southie project...

Actually, he's a secret Kennedy, supporting a punk-rock lifestyle (the orange was just a bleach-out before he decided on a color) with a secret credit card for beers, methadone treatment, and tetanus shots.
posted by griphus at 7:59 AM on June 20, 2011


...there was a highly suspect robot loose on Sesame Street.

I was thisclose to asking why the robot had a bow tie, but I was afraid I'd unleash a flood of return comments from people saying "Bowties are cool."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:01 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I liked the scruffy Big Bird (who looked like he just crawled out of a Dumpster) the best, but then I also liked the entire set-up and ethos of the older "Sesame Street" (and "Electric Company"!) better -- dirty, polluted, scummy, with tenements as backdrops, aimless brats sitting on stoops thinking up games to play in the boring summer heat, all the adults looking like shifty drug dealers on the make, everything unscrubbed and unvarnished, half the time you're expecting Frank Serpico to bust in and round up everybody and slam them against the wall.

That was how I pictured the Big City when I was 5 or 6 years old and I didn't live in a Big City.
posted by blucevalo at 8:03 AM on June 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


I liked the scruffy Big Bird (who looked like he just crawled out of a Dumpster) the best, but then I also liked the entire set-up and ethos of the older "Sesame Street" (and "Electric Company"!) better -- dirty, polluted, scummy, with tenements as backdrops, aimless brats sitting on stoops thinking up games to play in the boring summer heat, all the adults looking like shifty drug dealers on the make, everything unscrubbed and unvarnished, half the time you're expecting Frank Serpico to bust in and round up everybody and slam them against the wall.

The early Sesame Street neighborhood has always defined the utopian city to me - not tenements but multifamily apartments, not aimless brats but kids playing outside without micromanaging adults, regular grown-ups who looking working- or middle-class instead of like TV stars...Not a scrubbed and polished, gentrified city where I'd never be happy but a regular place where it's possible to imagine working a regular job and still affording to live.
posted by Frowner at 8:09 AM on June 20, 2011 [16 favorites]


Huh. I wonder now just how much of the aged and lived-in Sesame Street visuals wrre hard-coded into my brain.

Because, yeah, to me that pretty much is utopia - a mix of interesting people, a landscape that's more comfortable than presentable, kids and critters wandering around everywhere.
posted by cmyk at 8:18 AM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


To chime in with bluecevalo and Frowner -- when my friend in Ireland finally visited me in New York for the first time, she confirmed that Sesame Street was also where she'd gotten part of her impression of New York; as we were walking around amid some brownstones, she suddenly gasped and said "It really is just like Sesame Street!"

Then later on, taking the subway out to the Queens Science Center took us past some neighborhoods that were "just like Archie Bunker's neighborhood", and the Empire State Building was "just like Sleepless in Seattle." One of these days I feel like I should send her a copy of Manhattan and be done with it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:18 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Not to spam the thread, but I sort of had the reverse experience w/r/t city life. Growing up in Big Cities all my life -- we went from St. Petersburg to Brooklyn -- it was nice and comforting to see something familiar. Alleyways and apartments and kids playing on the block instead of the big front yard no one had in the majority-immigrant neighborhoods I grew up and still live in.

Most cartoons and TV shows all took place in the suburbs. Now, we had relative out in the 'burbs, and I even spent a summer living in the original Levittown (holy god that bored me to death) but it was hard to identify with anything I was "allowed" to watch because no one lived anywhere that I recognized as home.
posted by griphus at 8:37 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The early Sesame Street neighborhood has always defined the utopian city to me - not tenements but multifamily apartments, not aimless brats but kids playing outside without micromanaging adults, regular grown-ups who looking working- or middle-class instead of like TV stars...Not a scrubbed and polished, gentrified city where I'd never be happy but a regular place where it's possible to imagine working a regular job and still affording to live.

Ha! Add the dancing in the streets a-la West Side Story and you had my utopia!

When I was 15, I wanted to run away to NYC. I pretty much had the route mapped out (I would ride my bike on the back roads), and "decided" at the last minute not to spare my parents the heartbreak.

I was convinced that NYC while not perfect would be like Sesame Street, with kind-hearted working class denizens, waiting to accept me into their fold.

Now looking back, if I probably did go through with it, I probably would have ended up dancing, but probably not in the streets of NYC or brooklyn, or harlem.
posted by bitteroldman at 8:37 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Because, yeah, to me that pretty much is utopia - a mix of interesting people, a landscape that's more comfortable than presentable, kids and critters wandering around everywhere

Some argue that this urban ideal is as much nature as it is nurture. I am entirely pleased that this thread is starting to sound like a discussion about the theories of Jane Jacobs.

I like the idea that even at thirty-one I can learn new things about the lessons that Sesame Street tried to teach me/us.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 8:52 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sesame Street dealt with many of these themes in Big Bird's first (and only) starring role: Follow That Bird. Here's how Wikipedia describes it:

When he is finally brought back to Sesame Street, Big Bird is happy to be back but then looks on as Miss Finch arrives to announce that she has found another bird family for him. Maria convinces Miss Finch that Big Bird can be, and is, happy there on Sesame Street—that it does not make any difference that his family consists of humans, monsters, grouches, honkers, and the other varieties of eclectic species on Sesame Street. What matters is that they are family.

If you haven't seen Follow That Bird, check the cast: Waylon Jennings, Chevy Chase, John Candy, Joe Flaherty & Dave Thomas, Sandra Bernhard.
posted by mattbucher at 9:06 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Huh. You know how, when you repeat the same word often enough, it starts to lose all sense of meaning? I'm kinda getting that with the still frames of Big Bird.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:10 AM on June 20, 2011


Oscar? New Englander? Connecticut, maybe. Closer to the Bronx than further. Once you get as far north as RI, weird shit happens to vowels and consonants, culminating in New Hampshire, which is like a Boston Accent crossed with a buzzsaw, and all but unintelligible even to other New Englanders:

Mother In Law - Uneed sam kwadas fada hawzy?
Me - Whuh?
MIL - Fada kid taride. Owfront.
Me - Whuh?
Wife - Thanks, we won't need any quarters, Mom, the baby is still too little to ride on the horsie-ride in front of the store.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:23 AM on June 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


The early Sesame Street neighborhood has always defined the utopian city to me - not tenements but multifamily apartments, not aimless brats but kids playing outside without micromanaging adults, regular grown-ups who looking working- or middle-class instead of like TV stars...Not a scrubbed and polished, gentrified city where I'd never be happy but a regular place where it's possible to imagine working a regular job and still affording to live.

I didn't mean to make it sound like that wasn't any kind of utopia to me, but it actually was. The "aimless brats" and other somewhat sarcastic descriptions were meant to distinguish the set of "Sesame Street" from the sunshiny scrubbed suburban-values-friendly sets that you see on kids' shows these days -- not to trash it.

My memory of it, to the extent that memory can be trusted, is that those sets -- and the sets of all kinds of other TV shows from the 1970s, from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" to "All in the Family" -- were meant to evoke the "we're all in this together even if we hate each other sometimes" ethos, whether that ethos was a myth or not. That's what I grew up on. That's what my parents sat me in front of when they were bickering. That's what I took in as what society outside my own real childhood was like -- if I wished hard enough, I could make "Sesame Street" and all those other TV shows come true and get out of my unending hellhole trap.
posted by blucevalo at 9:32 AM on June 20, 2011


Once you get as far north as RI, weird shit happens to vowels and consonants, culminating in New Hampshire, which is like a Boston Accent crossed with a buzzsaw, and all but unintelligible even to other New Englanders....

Tangent alert: you've reminded me of a story my grandfather (who lived on Cape Cod) told about trying to buy greeting cards while visiting Texas. As far as he was concerned, though, he was only poking fun at the Texas guy's accent, but I was hearing his accent as well, and it was doubly funny because it was a conversation between one guy asking for "cahds" and another guy realizing he meant "currds".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:33 AM on June 20, 2011


I've never seen Carroll Spinney as Big Bird in person, but a few years ago, when my daughter was very little, we took her to one of those "Sesame Street Live" shows and Big Bird was, naturally, one of the characters in the performance. Given how much life and naturalism Spinney puts into Big Bird on TV, I was actually quite shocked and disappointed at how artificial and stiff the ersatz Big Bird was, and it makes me fear ever seeing any of the "real" Muppets performed in person because it would destroy the illusion of them being "alive" forever.
posted by briank at 10:42 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Back in the 80s, my father was a reporter for the Boston Globe and was able to interview Kermit and his puppeteers (I assume Henson was there) when he came to speak at Harvard Commencement. He said that he saw Kermit on his stand at some point, and it was one of the creepiest moments in his life. The people said that they never, ever showed the puppets without a puppeteer attached, exactly for that reason.
posted by Melismata at 10:57 AM on June 20, 2011


I have a vague memory of an interview with Caroll Spinney in which he said that he had once played this joke:

He'd gone up to a trash can (in an area with a bunch of kids nearby), opened the lid, stuck his head in, and shouted (in his Oscar the Grouch voice) "Hey! Shut the door! I'm trying to sleep in here!"; then slammed down the lid as if admonished and quickly walked away. The kids all stood there dumbfounded for a second and then rushed to the trash can to see if they could see Oscar.

Does anybody know where I might have heard that? I'd love to read the transcript/hear it again.
posted by Elly Vortex at 11:26 AM on June 20, 2011


Oscar? New Englander? Connecticut, maybe. Closer to the Bronx than further. Once you get as far north as RI, weird shit happens to vowels and consonants

Yeah, I was probably rash. Mind you, I've never actually heard a New England accent in person so I don't know precisely what they sound like.
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:27 AM on June 20, 2011


Big Bird's recent greenscreen work (usually with Matt Vogel as the puppeteer inside) has him using an articulated second hand driven by a second puppeteer: something I found unsettling at first.

I was charmed to learn that Spinney plays both Oscar and Big Bird, such clear opposites. He's also a pretty good illustrator.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:35 AM on June 20, 2011


(Tangent alert: you've reminded me of a story my grandfather (who lived on Cape Cod) told about trying to buy greeting cards while visiting Texas. As far as he was concerned, though, he was only poking fun at the Texas guy's accent, but I was hearing his accent as well, and it was doubly funny because it was a conversation between one guy asking for "cahds" and another guy realizing he meant "currds".

"Frowner, can I borrow a pin?"
"Oh, just let me get my sewing kit...I think it's in my closet."
"No, just hand me a pin--"
"I don't have any on my desk-"
"Yes you do!"
"What?"
"A pin! A pin! There's one right there! I'll get it myself!"

A pin, it turned out, is the kind of thing you write with, if you're from Kentucky by way of Mississippi and talking to an unimaginative midwesterner. )
posted by Frowner at 12:05 PM on June 20, 2011


Big Bird on Hollywood Squares (lower your volume)

Carroll Spinney playing a lion character on the local Boston edition of Bozo the Clown. - scroll ahead to the 6:00 mark.

As incredible as it is to believe, Spinney had such a rough time taping the first season of Sesame Street (low pay, long hours, poorly-designed puppets, and he hated New York at the time) that during the hiatus he WENT BACK TO BOSTON and did another season of Bozo, unsure whether he would return to Sesame Street. But he did return to find a redesigned Oscar and reconfigured trash-can setup, and a Big Bird costume that, among other changes, now had a monitor in the belly so he could see what he was doing.

Also, in the Bozo credits he's "Ed Spinney." He explained that he started using his middle name in the army, figuring, "I've got enough troubles."
posted by evilcolonel at 12:39 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


That was fun. I never would have guessed that BB and OtG were the same person! I also loved the previous post with the 'in the navy' muppets. And Bert doing the pigeon. It is amazing how ingrained those memories are...I haven't (conciously) thought about the muppets or sesame street in at least 20 years prior to these posts. But as soon as you hear their voices...there you are, 5 again, mesmerized in front of your tv. (ok, technically wayy more than 20 years then...).
posted by bquarters at 7:23 PM on June 20, 2011


Huh. You know how, when you repeat the same word often enough, it starts to lose all sense of meaning? I'm kinda getting that with the still frames of Big Bird.

That is so fitting. This is exactly how I feel.
posted by Evstar at 7:32 PM on June 20, 2011


...culminating in New Hampshire, which is like a Boston Accent crossed with a buzzsaw, and all but unintelligible even to other New Englanders

Ummm...this is completely false. I've lived all over the country and basically have the "neutral" accent. NH is perfectly comprehensible with only a faint New England accent (although to be fair I've only spent much time in the lower half of the state, which is to say northern MA). Boston, on the other hand, is ridiculous.
posted by DU at 5:30 AM on June 21, 2011


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