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Sunday, May 04, 2014

He Is Big Bird (And Oscar) by Zach Woliner

Carroll Spinney and Zach Woliner
BAM in Brooklyn, circa late 2004.
The Muppets and Sesame Street have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Eventually, as I aged, Sesame had less prominence, as it’s geared towards educating young children. Still, when I experienced a  resurgence in interest in all things Muppet-related, after the release of the action figure line tied to The Muppet Show, amongst other things celebrating that show’s 25th everything connected to The Muppets and other works of Jim Henson.

Since that time, I’ve gone to many events and screenings tied to that world, starting in late 2003, if my memory serves me correctly. Through them, I’ve had the chance to meet so many important figures in Muppet/Sesame/Henson history, as well as making friends with like-minded individuals. Through the wonders of the internet, I’ve maintained some of these connections for all of these years, despite physical distance between us.

Yesterday, I was incredibly happy to add another screening to my personal history. I took my mother and my wife to the Montclair Film Festival in Montclair, New Jersey, for the United States premiere of I Am Big Bird,a documentary highlighting the life and career of Caroll Spinney, who has performed Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch since the very first episode of
Sesame Street, in late 1969.

The last time my mother and I went to a Sesame event in New Jersey, it was connected to the release of the book, Street Gang. It was in a large auditorium at William Paterson University. We got a little lost, and ended up being a little late, but we still enjoyed what we were there for. As much as I planned and prepared, in order to be completely ready and not miss anything, this time around, there was some unexpected confusion.

I ordered the tickets online, and on my confirmation, it mentioned that the film would play at The Montclair Kimberley Academy. I looked it up, set the address on my GPS, and even had printed out directions as a backup. The confirmation also noted to be there about 15 minutes beforehand, to leave room to pick up the tickets, etc. I left plenty of time, and even after hitting some traffic, we got there with time to spare. Or so we thought.

I pulled into the parking lot for The Montclair Kimberley Academy, and tried to remain calm, despite being confused by it being clearly labeled as a middle school, and thus not somewhere a film would likely be screened. Thankfully, as I approached the doors, I spotted a couple walking out, with one of them wearing an Oscar/Iron Man “Iron Can” mashup t-shirt. With them walking out, I figured it would be best to check if I was in the right place with them, rather than finding out on my own.

When I asked, they were, indeed, there to see the film, and as it turned out, they faced the same confusion we did. Thankfully, they had already gotten things cleared up, and had the address for THE OTHER Montclair Kimberley Academy. Yes, there were two campuses, with no mention of this in the confirmation, in addition to the lack of the specific address. Thankfully, there was still time. As they helped save us the time of discovering this, separately, we let them come along for the ride with us to the proper place.

Once we got there, I was able to quickly get my tickets printed, having brought my confirmation printout with me, and we grabbed some seats, though they were toward the back, as the audience was mostly full. It was not long before an introduction was given. The directors and producer came out and said a few words, and it was time to enjoy the show. I had been waiting for this for a long time, as I had contributed to their Kickstarter campaign that helped them get the funding they needed. E-mail updates were nice, along the way, but they also made me want the final product all the more.

The lights went down and the movie played. What a film it was! It is filled with archival footage, going through Caroll Spinney’s entire history, with him often narrating, interspersed with bits from interviews with his colleagues, friends, and family. It includes so much, including things that even the most hardcore Muppet/Sesame fans probably didn’t know. It’s packed with highlights, but is also not afraid to show some of the less-than-happy times in the life of this extraordinary man.

Watching the documentary unfold, you really get to know Caroll.
Additionally, by the end, I felt like I knew his wife, Debra, as well. Aside from his amazing, lengthy, and still-going career, you get to see the love shared by this couple, and it was even pleasant to get to see his children speak lovingly about their dad, even while there were times where they didn’t get to spend as much time as they might have liked, due to his busy schedule. Of course, it was really great to seeing some other Muppet legends in there, as well, with archival footage including Jim Henson, Richard Hunt, typically non-Sesame Dave Goelz (from during the filming of Muppet Family Christmas), and Steve Whitmire, in addition to interviews
with Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson, who sadly passed away during the time this film was in production. It was nice to see him again, as well as Caroll wearing a tribute shirt, at one point.

I was very personally touched by this inspiring story. Not to make it about me, but from my point of view, I could connect, seeing even a living legend like Caroll having his struggles and self-doubts, as he worked to follow his dreams. Additionally, how he found renewed strength in the love and connection with Deb reminds me of my wife and family, and how they support my efforts through thick and thin.

Of course, their documenting of so much, with a lot of their personal archives making up a good chunk of the movie’s footage also resonates with me, as I capture so much of my life with my wife, pets, and puppets via my handy Flip camera that my parents got me for my birthday, a few years back.

I would highly recommend getting out to see this, when and if it gets a wider release. It was wonderful so see it come to fruition, and the audience I was in obviously appreciated it all, with multiple standing ovations and extended applause. We were also treated to a Q&A with the film-makers, as well as Caroll and Deb, afterwards. While the questions were fairly typical of something like this, I was thrilled to have a special part, as I had brought my own puppet, Wally Wackiman, along with me, as I sometimes do for Muppet events.

While not having a question, I took the opportunity to have Wally thank Caroll for everything, as well as Deb for her unwavering support of Caroll in all of his pursuits. Oh, I should also probably mention that Caroll had a puppet with him, too. No, putting on Big Bird was not going to happen, but as I experienced, once before, carrying Oscar to a screening was doable. Either way, while I intended to just say what I had to (via Wally), I ended up being asked to come right up to the stage, so it was extra special, and hearing Caroll compliment both Wally as a puppet and the voice I use for him was a sheer joy unlike many others. Of course, I had my wife use my Flip to capture this for me, as with so much else.

Though I was happy to have done this, the real treat of the day was yet to come. Afterwards, a line formed in the hall to meet Caroll, and have a chance for things like pictures and autographs. We got in line, though in this instance, my main concern was for my mom and my wife. You see, through other events, I have had chances to get autographs and my picture with Caroll. My mom, however, lost the one picture I took with her and Caroll, from when he was promoting his autobiographical book, several years back, as the camera malfunctioned. In addition to this being a chance for a do-
over, today is her birthday, so it would be an extra-special present for her, as
her passion for Sesame Street and the good it has done for children (her own and others, around the world) can often rival my own.

Soon, the line started to break off and disperse. A feeling of dread loomed in the pit of my stomach. I’ve met my share of famous people, at all sorts of occasions, and though the line was clearly established, it felt like maybe it was somehow a mistake, and someone had found out that Caroll had already left, or something along those lines. Quite the contrary. As we left the building, with a slight sense of defeat, we were greeted by a crowd gathered all around Caroll and Oscar, taking the time to take pictures and sign things for all who wanted them.

During this time, I met up with a few friends I’ve met a few times at these types of things, as well as meeting one for the first time, “IRL”, after just having connected through the online puppetry community, via Facebook. Making these connections is always a great part of attending these events, as well. Soon, though, we went off to join the adoring masses.

Without being rude, my mother and wife were able to eventually make their way through the massive crowd, to the front/center of the not-quite-a-line. My mom was ecstatic, letting this incredibly sweet, kind, patient, talented, wonderful man know what he meant to her, as well as having the pleasure of Oscar singing a brief rendition of “A Very Unhappy Birthday To You” for her. My wife got in, as well, with Oscar leaving a nice message to our niece, for whenever she’s old enough to understand it, and eventually brag to
her friends. I got it all on video, took two quick pictures of the four of them, thanked Caroll, and then headed off, completely satisfied with our amazing day.

I really can’t wait to see more of Caroll, as he continues his work, into his 80’s, looking forward to at least 50 years as The Bird and The Grouch. I also can’t wait to follow the inspiration of him and so many others, as I continue to pursue my own puppetry aspirations. Lastly, I can’t wait for Copper Pot Pictures to find distribution, so that I can own the Blu-Ray of I Am Big Bird, as part of my Kickstarter backer rewards. It will be another terrific addition to my collection, and hopefully yours, as well.

-Zach Woliner

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