Written by Kristen Lopez
Sesame Street’s Big Bird is one of the most beloved icons of children’s programming, if not the icon of childhood itself. But do you know the man living inside the suit? The man whom, without him, Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch wouldn’t exist? A life without these two characters is a horrific thought, which makes telling puppeteer Caroll Spinney’s story all the more necessary. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story seeks to go inside the character of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to learn about the man who gives them life. Directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker create a tender portrait of a man who’s content with anonymity and bringing happiness to children everywhere. If you grew up with Sesame Street in any way, shape, or form, prepare to take a walk down memory lane to discover the man who’s brought laughter and joy into your life.
Every child, teenager, and adult since Sesame Street’s inception has a Big Bird story, whether it was watching the bright-yellow fowl in Big Bird in China or his feature film, Follow That Bird. I Am Big Bird breezes through the basic touchstones of Spinney’s life, remembering to give everything equal measure in the grand scheme of things. For Caroll Spinney, playing a children’s character and working with puppets was something he wanted to do from a young age, starting with his mother buying him a puppet theater to perform in. Spinney’s childhood wasn’t as happy as he’s made children today, growing up with an abusive father and being bullied in school. After being unimpressed with Disney – as much as I love the Mouse House, I’m happy Spinney didn’t stick around – he met Jim Henson and the rest is history. This is a documentary you actually wish had an extra hour for all the elements that could have been included, and according to LaMattina himself, he wished he had more time to discuss the other people involved in Sesame Street’s creation. (If you’re interested in learning more about Sesame Street’s origins, I urge everyone to read Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis.)
Spinney’s life is a rollercoaster, and this documentary lets you feel those emotions. It isn’t enough to smile as clips from Sesame Street or other Muppet productions play, you understand what was going on inside Spinney himself. A powerful moment comes as Spinney recounts his divorce and inability to see his children, a haunting moment where he contemplated suicide. It’s always difficult to realize our icons are people, none more so than Big Bird himself. Thankfully, for every low there’s an immense high, and after this scene we watch the love story unfold between Spinney and his wife, Debra Spinney, a marriage that’s lasted for 35 years! The movie is as much Debra’s story as Caroll’s, as these two are peas in a pod. One of their children goes so far as to say people believe their relationship is fake because of how deep their love runs. These moments may sound hokey on the page, but in the documentary they’re life-affirming. Sesame Street is a state of mind, but the real relationships show Spinney as a real man whose life one can only dream of, and I’m not just talking about playing with puppets.
To go on longer would give too much away and feel like beating a dead horse. Suffice it to say, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney story is sheer joy. If you enjoyed Being Elmo, another Muppet/Sesame Street documentary, you’ll enjoy this as much, if not more. Spinney is a man who has given joy to children globally and yet remains remarkably down-to-Earth. Sesame Street may bring sunny days, but the superlative work of I Am Big Bird’s does more than enough to chase the clouds away.