by Eric Ginsburg
My parents feared the worst.
As a small kid I developed the obsessive habit of lining up my toy figurines, exhibiting a level of anal retentiveness that they likely feared would follow me through life. Everything had to be just so, and the small plastic figure of Big Bird sitting in a nest was the queen bee. So when they put me down for a nap one afternoon while on a family beach vacation and that friendly, yellow giant was missing from the squad, panic quickly ensued.
Fearing a broken floodgate of tears and a torrent of shrieking, terrified family members split up and scoured the house, the beach and everywhere in between, even sending a delegation to the store to try and procure a replacement before I woke up. No dice.
When I did, I’m told I sauntered over to a potted plant inside the house and snagged Big Bird out of the dirt; for some reason I had thrust him face down into the earth, his brown nest making the toy nearly invisible.
For more than a generation, kids the world over have shared my childhood obsession with the starting center on “Sesame Street,” an affable, bumbling and sometimes poignant bird with characteristics much like a preschooler. Even during the era of that giggling, red Muppet Elmo, Big Bird’s mass appeal was undeniable, his persona inextricably linked to the classic kids’ TV show.
But the premise of I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, which opens at Geeksboro Coffeehouse Cinema on Friday, focuses on a component of the 8-foot bird that most of us never considered: the man inside.
Drawing heavily on home video footage and first-person narration, I Am Big Bird tells the story of the nearly 80-year old man who has anchored Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since the show’s inception more than 40 years ago. Much like the two characters Spinney plays, the film balances a duality of darkness and playful joy, quickly addressing childhood abuse and later tackling cruel childhood bullying.
“Some day those bastards are going to brag they knew me,” Spinney recounts saying as a kid.
It’s one of many illuminating and illustrative moments in the touching film, which takes a stern look at persisting dark moments — such as the death of Jim Henson or Spinney’s brief suicidal thoughts — as well as an overriding tenderness and compassion Spinney embodies.
Several scenes jut out, including home footage of Spinney as an adult running joyously through a field, tumbling down to the ground and rolling before flopping down like an exhausted and overjoyed puppy.
As does the portion of the film that breaks down the mechanics of actually being Big Bird and wearing an “electronic bra” complete with a monitor inside the suit and the challenge of operating the bird’s mouth, eyes and head. It’s miraculous really, and bears watching in full, especially when followed up by a shot of Spinney in the 4,000-feather suit riding a unicycle.
Oscar is mostly an afterthought to the film, not appearing until almost an hour in, and even then only briefly. It’s mostly, as the name suggests, about Spinney as Big Bird, though it delves into the show’s succession plan, too.
“Big Bird, he’s my child,” Spinney says towards the end of the film, “and some day he’ll be adopted.”
The film is full of surprises, including details about how Spinney was originally scheduled to go on the Challenger space shuttle as Big Bird, or how he almost quit the show early on. There’s footage of his appearances on the low-budget “The Bozo Show” in the ’60s, which aired with no script and looks crude to the modern eye, and details of how Spinney first met Jim Henson at a puppet festival in Salt Lake City in 1969 before joining “Sesame Street” on Day One.
But more important than any of the anecdotes or details, the film’s main accomplishment is a moving, overarching portrait of the man behind the mask, a jubilant fellow who appears to have a golden heart and an uncanny knack for puppetry. Spinney long ago nested in the heart of kids like me everywhere through the guise of Big Bird, but after watching I Am Big Bird, the man himself resides alongside his better half.
I Am Big Bird: the Caroll Spinney Story opens at Geeksboro on Friday. Visit geeksboro.com or iambigbird.com for more info.