Caroll Spinney does not allow any pictures of himself.
But if you like, he'll slip into his alter ego.
First the long, yellow leggings with oversized webfeet.
Then the fluffy, oversized rigging.
Big Bird from Sesame Street, U.S.A.
The Feathered Friend.
"The feet are costume," Spinney explains, "but the rest is a puppet so large that one climbs in. I don't really wear it, I hold it up."
And from inside, manipulates the beak, the body and them there eyes.
"It's all in the handwork."
Spinney, silver-haired, bearded and looking very much the puppeteer, was in Washington recently to do some advance work for "Follow That Bird," the first "Sesame Street" movie. He made a number of appearances around town, "birding," as he calls his costumed entrances. None could have been as intriguing as his stepping, in full rig, onto a hotel elevator filled with members of the Chinese presidential delegation.
"I said 'Niha . . . hello,' " Spinney recounts, which was probably the last thing they expected out of the mouth of an oversized bird at that hour of the morning. He had learned some Chinese during two television specials filmed there.
If Big Bird has a high global recognition factor -- in China, he's Da Niao; in Japan, Akino Tolli; in France, Le Grand Oiseau; in Germany, Bebo ("Gross Vogel just doesn't work") -- it's never been a problem for Spinney, 51. He stays out of sight.
"It's not just to have mystery," he explains. "I think Big Bird is better without his person trying to claim credit. It's not like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McBird. I have no desire to be famous whatsoever."
Still, Spinney's job description can be something of a conversation stopper at cocktail parties. "Sometimes I tell them I'm an artist. Otherwise it gets to be one subject, which is real old hat to me."
Sixteen-years-old hat, in fact. Big Bird, with his neither-here-nor-there voice, may be the perpetual 6-year-old, but Spinney sees himself taking Bird to the quarter-century mark, along with Bird's alter ego, Oscar the Grouch (or in the parlance of "Sesame Street's" youngest fans, Ouch).
Which does provide Spinney a convenient split personality.
"I didn't know I had it until I was asked to do this job," he laughs lightly. "I suppose it's therapeutic because Big Bird is so sweet and nice -- he's definitely my favorite -- but Oscar is so gutsy and strong in his ways. Not that I really like Oscar that much. I don't like people like him very much."
Sitting in his room with Big Bird's creator, Kris Kringle look-alike Kermit Love, Spinney talks while the rig rests in a nearby room following an infusion of fresh feathers, an almost daily necessity. "It always looks like autumn behind me, with the fallen leaves," Spinney sighs.
"Jim Henson created the concept -- 'Let there be a Bird' -- and we built it in this fashion."
The Bird -- klutzy, gawky, gullible and a favorite of kids under 8 -- has benefited from "subtle improvements, like some car models that seem to look better a few years later," Spinney explains in a voice somewhere between Big Bird and Oscar. "Bird has evolved from looking like there wasn't more than five or six points of IQ . . . He had practically no head above his eyes to start with, and very few feathers. He really looked brainless. Kermit managed to sneak a few more feathers and nobody noticed the gradual fluffing out of Bird until he became much prettier. It's a funny look, but still kind of pretty. And the feathers are so gorgeous."
Ironically, Bird wasn't even in the original plans for "Sesame Street." He wasn't in the first five pilots, but, Spinney says, "they gathered they should have something a little more fantasy than just humans on the street. Bird was a compromise between humans and puppets. Puppeteers are always hidden behind a wall or a desk or couch, whereas Big Bird can walk right in, or right down the street. He was a clown who would come crashing onto the set, knocking over trash cans . . ."
The klutziness, he adds, not only runs in the family ("I was a lot like that and my son is, too") but comes naturally "because I'm three-quarters blind in there. It's like looking through a drinking straw."
"I wasn't thinking about creating a character the children could identify with -- we weren't that sophisticated," Spinney says. "I was playing him more as a kid. Bird used to throw tantrums. In that first year, I still had a lot to learn. What previous experience could you possibly have for holding up that thing? It was so different from the little puppets I'd always worked with, the ones that hardly passed your wrist."
To hear Spinney tell it, he was born to puppet, born, in fact, the day after Christmas in rural Massachusetts. "That's why they named me Caroll. I live for Christmas. Only trouble with that is you don't get any birthday presents."
He saw his first puppet show when he was in kindergarten (" 'Three Little Kittens,' and I thought it was just the neatest thing").
"After I saw another, I just had to do it. I got hold of a puppet for a nickel and somehow made up a story with it and a stuffed snake I had. I put a show on in the barn at 2 cents for the neighborhood kids, made at least 36 cents, which was a fortune in 1942. That was it: 'Now I'm a professional.' After Christmas, my mother made me a set of Punch and Judy and got me started. Then I discovered television at 12, and decided that was it for me . . . and here we are."
It was, of course, more complicated than that, though Spinney correctly figured "it would be better if I got older. At 12, I had 70 puppets and 12 different stories. I put myself through art school with birthday party and Christmas shows."
He landed his first television show, "Rascal Rabbit," at age 21 in Las Vegas. "Got paid $10 a week, but I would have done it for free. Unfortunately, in three weeks I used up all my shows." That same year, 1955, Jim Henson was introducing his first Muppet characters on "Sam and Friends" on WRC-TV here.
But Spinney survived and served apprenticeships in various cities before eventually hooking up with Henson at a 1969 puppeteers festival in Salt Lake City.
"When he described Big Bird, I couldn't picture what it would be. I didn't even know what 'Sesame Street' was. Of course, I would have worked on anything with Jim Henson. My three heroes were Walt Disney, Jim Henson and Andrew Wyeth. I met Andrew, and I saw Disney in the next room when I applied for a cartoonist's job. Unfortunately they weren't hiring that year.
"And I ended up working for one of my heroes."
Big Bird is, according to Spinney, "a replay of my own childhood feelings. I was very insecure, shy, didn't know what to say to people. I was always the tiniest kid in school. My nicknames were Peewee and Peanut. One time my teacher was asked what 'puny' was and she thought for a moment and said 'Caroll. He's puny.' It's probably just as bad to be too big, like Bird.
"He's a winner though," Spinney says with obvious affection. "When Bird sets out to do something, even though every problem that's going to happen happens, he always gets there, and manages to do it with a great feeling of triumph and pride because he does stick to what he's going to do.
"I get a lot of letters from little children who ask him to come over and play. 'You're really my friend . . . ' They leave kiss marks on the television screen. By the time they're 8, they'll deny they ever watched that 'baby' show, but a 14-year-old told me recently that I meant an awful lot to him when he was younger and thanks a lot. That felt really good, one of the best compliments ever.
"And of course, Big Bird is part of the fabric of our culture, and that's awfully pleasing . . . "
Being Bird has allowed Spinney not only to travel but to realize other fantasies as well. Like conducting the Boston Pops.
"My entire musical education was Arthur Fiedler handing me the baton and saying, 'Bring it up and bring it down and they will play.' So I brought it up and brought it down, the whole orchestra went BOOM and I just about dropped the baton. I'd never felt such power, and fright of having power, in my life."
Spinney/Bird appeared in concert series for eight years, capping his conducting career with the Cleveland Symphony. "They're considered the second best in the world by those who keep count, so that was a nice way to end."
But, he makes it clear, Bird is the love of his work. "Sesame Street" starts shooting new episodes in September. "There's something vibrant and good about the show because they do take the trouble to keep doing it. I picture us doing it at least 25 years. At this point it certainly hasn't zenithed."
This, incidentally, is Caroll Spinney's idea of a joke.
"When I'm on vacation, the puppets are not with me," he says, adding, "I'm not so funny without them. I'll go over to a trash can, lean in and say loudly, 'Oscar, what are you doing in this trash can here?' and I'll stick my head down in and ventriloquize 'Get your head out of my trash can!' "
"And then I'll leave and the kids will come over and they'll all be looking down through the trash . . ."
And sometimes, when the spirit seizes him in an echoey hallway, Spinney'll throw his Big Bird voice and then pretend he has nothing to do with it. "Then their interest is down the hall.
"I try hard not to destroy any illusions for those who believe."
That attitude brought him into conflict recently with another kiddie perennial, Mister Rogers, who in recent years has taken to debunking fantasy characters of all stripes.
"I was supposed to be a guest, and when I got the script, I was going to be Big Bird first and then remove the puppet and explain everything. I said, 'We can't do this.' He called me and said it was very important to do. I said 'No, if you want me on, Big Bird is real.' He spent a half-hour trying to convince me I was wrong, but he'll never convince me on that. I went on but it was strictly Big Bird. Caroll Spinney does not do television.
"I agree with Captain Kangaroo on this one.
"At the same age, until they're about 7, the children who know and love Santa have the same feeling for Bird. If they come to the set I get 'deBirded' eventually and some take it very hard. I've seen a lot of disappointment. I know it's going to happen sooner or later, but I hate it. Childhood fantasy is a precious, short-lived time; don't take it away. The reality of the world is going to be apparent all too soon."