I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story

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I was in Washington, D.C. with an old girlfriend years ago. At some Jewish event going on, I was talking to actor Mandy Patinkin. I was really just waiting to meet the amazing singer/songwriter/pianist Regina Spektor, as I peppered Patinkin with questions about The Princess Bride, one of the most adorable movies ever.

The girlfriend was more interested in taking a photo with Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. Just as I was about to take the photo of her and Oscar, the guy controlling the puppet popped his head up from behind the trash can. When she saw the photo later, she was furious. She had been photo bombed! It was the first time I had ever been involved with a photograph where a photo bomb took place.

It wasn’t until we got back to San Diego that we found out it was Caroll Spinney, the guy that had done the voices of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since Sesame Streets inception.

Since I grew up watching the show, I would’ve asked him a few questions had I know who he was.

Luckily, I got to find out who he was watching the documentary I Am Big Bird.

Creator Jim Henson caught him doing a local puppet show, and adlibbing after a few problems occurred onstage. He was impressed enough to invite him to be on the show. That first season, the cast (and Spinney himself), didn’t think it went so well. He was going to quit, but was talked into staying. That was the correct decision.

I enjoyed the last documentary on a Sesame Street character (Being Elmo), but unfortunately for everyone, the man behind that (Kevin Clash) was soon fired from the show for his interest in teenage boys.

It’s safe to say there won’t be any controversies like that with Mr. Spinney.

He had an evil first wife, but we also get to hear about a very loving relationship he had with his second.

You can’t help but root for a guy that was bullied as a kid (playing with puppets and having the name Carroll doesn’t help when bullies are involved). He also had a dad that beat him and his mom regularly.

The animation (including the closing credits) were done by Spinney as well. Although it would’ve been a little more interesting to see more than just talking-head interviews from Sesame Street cast members (including the latest Big Bird). A few of the big name guest stars from Sesame Street would’ve been welcome, as well as a documentary that wasn’t a tad self-serving.

Although the guys that made this (Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker) using a Kickstarter campaign, didn’t shy away from some of the dirt. We learn about a death on his estate, as well as a story involving NASA that was just devastating to hear.

There were a handful of moments that will have the tears flowing. One of those involves Big Bird singing “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green” at the Henson memorial.

There’s some interesting behind-the-scenes footage of Sesame Street, and some stories you don’t see coming. Who would’ve guessed such a quiet, sweet man like Spinney would have arguments with a writer/director on the show. You just can’t imagine a director being angry with something a big feathery muppet is doing.

The score to this was rather intrusive and schmaltzy, and the film had a few missteps. I also couldn’t help wondering if anybody that didn’t grow up with Sesame Street would find it interesting. I think they would, because Spinney had a rather interesting life, and this covers a lot of fun things. A trip to China went in fun (albeit predictable) directions.

There’s an interesting story about an ROTC group that was supposed to watch the Big Bird outfit while the crew was out to lunch. What happened to the bird is just beyond belief.

It was a gas to see all the late night shows joking about Big Bird after a comment by Mitt Romney, but again, it had me wanting to hear more from some famous faces that aren’t named Frank Oz or Jim Henson.

The documentary will be at the Digital Gym in North Park for the rest of the week, and it’s worth checking out. As a child that hated Mr. Rogers but loved Sesame Street, it was fun to reminisce.

This gets 3 stars out of 5.

The two double-B's jamming: Big Bird and BB King.
The two double-B’s jamming: Big Bird and BB King.

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