On Saturday, Karen, Naoto and I went to the Gene Siskel Film Center and watched I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. Caroll Spinney is the man who has played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since 1969. I grew up watching Sesame Street and I’m extremely sentimental when it comes to my childhood, so when I learned about the movie, I was so excited to see it. Naoto was less excited, since he was robbed of a childhood with Sesame Street, but he came along willingly and didn’t regret it.
(Warning: possible spoilers to follow…at least as much as you can spoil a biography.)
Even though the movie was mostly about Caroll Spinney, it was also very much about his wife, Debra, whom he met in his early Big Bird years after a divorce from his first wife and a very dark period in Spinney’s life. Debra is also his manager and very involved in the daily life if Big Bird. They seem like a match made in heaven…you could feel the love oozing out of the screen.
Some of my favorite parts of the movie were the old Sesame Street footage and interviews with the cast members of my childhood. Luis, Gordon, and Maria were familiar faces who helped to share the Spinney story. And it was awesome to see footage of Jim Henson, who hired Spinney after seeing him sort of fail at an audition. Because Jim Henson is no longer around, Spinney retold some of their conversations through his own sweetly drawn cartoons.
I also loved learning about the behind-the-scenes details of Big Bird in China. Apparently it was a grueling production because they had such a small staff. (The film was a huge undertaking for Public Broadcasting.) At one point, when Big Bird is floating on a raft in the water, Spinney recalls that if he had fallen in, the filming would have ended because Big Bird (the costume) would be ruined. Spinney and his wife had an instant love for Lisa Ouyang, the little girl who played Xiao Fu in the movie. At the end of the filming, they didn’t have an opportunity to say goodbye to her, making their reunion all these years later a sure tear-jerker.
It was chilling to learn that Big Bird had been invited by NASA to ride on the Challenger space shuttle. NASA believed Big Bird could draw in a younger audience and get them interested in science. But the Big Bird suit was too big for the shuttle and NASA asked a teacher (Christa McAuliffe) to go instead. Both Spinney and his wife got very emotional when they told the story of this close call. (I teared up too, in spite of reading about this fact beforehand.)
The movie really portrays Caroll Spinney as a complete person–you see his challenges and flaws as much as you see his success and contributions to his craft. I appreciate that in a biography, since we are all imperfect humans.
I highly recommend I Am Big Bird if you’re a fan of Sesame Street or the Muppets and Jim Henson. It was such a sweet walk down memory lane and has made me want to watch some old Sesame Street clips again. I came home and pulled out my copy of Sesame Street Unpaved and I’m re-reading it again. (And…I’m considering borrowing Big Bird in Japan from the library so I can compare notes with Big Bird’s trip.)