If you can’t get enough of Sesame Street and The Muppets like this big kid who grew up with these shows and characters, then a 2014 documentary now available on Amazon is just for you. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is a feature-length documentary about the original, and only, Muppets puppeteer who has performed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch in the 45-year history of Sesame Street.
I Am Big Bird is a love letter of sorts, set to a bittersweet soundtrack. Filmmakers created an emotional look at a performing artist, his wife, and his relationship with Jim Henson and the cast and performers of Sesame Street from the beginning to the present incarnation of the show. Spinney comes through as every bit the kindhearted soul of his feathery yellow alter ego. Highlights of the film include the impact of Big Bird on the world, from teaching little kids from 1969 onward, to being credited in part with the demise of a candidate’s presidential bid. And nothing is more nostalgic than catching up with original Muppeteer Frank Oz and the original human cast of Sesame Street as they recount working with Caroll, including Bob McGrath (Bob), Sonia Manzano (Maria), Emilio Delgado (Luis), and Roscoe Orman (Gordon).
Expect to hold back (or not) some tears during the documentary. Plenty of down moments provide benchmarks in the life and times of Big Bird: the Sesame Street episode featuring Big Bird about the death of Mr. Hooper, an incredibly poised Caroll performing Big Bird singing “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green” at the funeral of Jim Henson, and the segment discussing Caroll’s space travel preparation with NASA when he was asked to be among the Challenger space shuttle crew, only to be rejected when they realized the Big Bird suit was too big (and then teacher Christa McAuliffe took his place), a group of ROTC students nearly destroy his Big Bird costume, and even the replacement by Elmo as most popular character on the show serves as a downbeat event.
Henson hailed Big Bird as the most popular and recognizable of all the puppets in the world. The documentary recounts many of Spinney and his wife’s travels for Big Bird appearances, including the filming of Caroll/Bird joining Bob Hope in China and returning to make a Big Bird movie there. Oscar the Grouch fans may be disappointed–the less positive of the Sesame Street characters gets little attention in this film.
At 80, Spinney shows no signs of stopping, continuing to make the odd appearance on Sesame Street as Big Bird, including a recent show about bullying. But we meet his eventual replacement, Matt Vogel, who has been shadowing Caroll for some 15 years and recently serving as Caroll’s stand-in. A bit of dread haunts the film a bit, and one could imagine a recut version with a more celebratory soundtrack truer to the character the public knows. Nota bene: This isn’t a show for kids.
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is streaming now on Amazon, and available for purchase here at Amazon.com.