A Sesame Street Question

So I’m trapped in rural Japan, the only native English speaker in town, and I often find myself watching ANYTHING that comes on Japanese TV with a hint of English in it. Steven Segal movies, NHK children’s shows, that Batman movie with the guy from ER…anything!

Sometimes I catch eps of Sesame Street. Now, I haven’t seen this on a regular basis for 25 years, but I have very vivid memories of the show. I remember how Big Bird had only one functional arm, and the other was attached by fishing line, leading under his beak to the working arm. (There’s a Japanese costumed children’s show character that tries – and fails – to emulate this.)

And yet, in the new eps I’ve been seeing, Big Bird has TWO WORKING ARMS! And his head and neck still seem to work the same way as it used to! How did they pull this off? What’s going on? Are my childhood memories a sham? Or have I just lived here too long…

I also think his voice sounds very different from what it used to, but that may be just me.


Well, technology marches on. The Big Bird costume you’re looking at now is not the same one that you saw as a child. Same guy, though; Carroll Spinney has been playing Big Bird (and Oscar the Grouch) since Day One, so what you think is a different man is just the same man getting older.




But…how does it work now? (yep, I was one of those kids who drove himself and everyone else bonkers trying to figure out how things worked…I remember how neat it felt when I figured out how the original Big Bird costume worked)

Oh, you poor, poor thing!

I don’t remember Big Bird having only one functional arm.

But the guy behind Big Bird did write a book.

Weeeelllll … not exactly. Yes, Carroll, who I believe will be 70 this year, does still perform the Bird, and he says he wants to do so until he can no longer hold up the bird’s head.

But he doesn’t play him all the time. If you watch Sesame Street’s credits, you’ll see a listing for Matt Vogel under “Additional Muppet performers” or somesuch. Fact is, Matt portrays Big Bird, voice included, about half the time these days. In particular, he usually portrays the Bird in the “Journey to Ernie” segments. The voice is remarkably well-done, but to someone with an ear for voices, there is a noticeable difference. I haven’t been able to actually locate an online cite for this, since the Muppeteers tend to like to keep this sort of thing quiet, since it unnecessarily disturbs some people. But it’s fairly well-known in the Muppet fan community. (Another little known fact is that the Big Bird seen in the opening credits is yet a third performer – a puppeteer by the name of Rick Lyon. Cite. Just noticed that he mentions Matt Vogel as Carroll’s “second”, too, so that’s a double cite.)

As far as Big Bird having two working arms, well … he still doesn’t, most of the time. Fact is, the costume is the same basic design as RobuSensei recalls from childhood. I have noticed what you’re talking about, though, and as far as I can tell, they are done as insert shots … swap in a different costume where the performer has both hands in Bird’s hands, film in such a way so that the head is out of frame, do the necessary action, and insert that shot in to further confound the viewer. On the “Journey to Ernie” segments, Bird is shot in front of a blue (or green) screen, so it would also be possible to have a blue (or green) clad performer behind Bird operating the other hand if necessary. I’d have to see the specific shots you’re talking about to know for sure, but rest assured that the costume is the same design as you remember.

(And as an aside, Bear in the Big Blue House is operated in the same way – and you can often see the monofilament attached to his paws pressing against the fur.)

Poke around on Rick Lyon’s website that I cited above. There’s some fun pictures there – just be warned – they reveal the magic beneath the Muppets!


And another piece of my childhood succumbs to reality.


PRNYouth, MsRobin, extraordinary claims. Haven’t you ever heard of Occam’s Razor? The simplest explanation is that Big Bird went in to surgery, and through the miracles of modern veterinary medicine, regained the use of his wing, which was paralyzed in a childhood accident. And please note that he doesn’t have any functional arms, he has functional wings. Get it right. :rolleyes:

This is patently untrue. The surgery was purely experimental, and Dr. Bob from Veterinarian’s Hospital has stated that it was unsuccessful. For a while, Big Bird tried the Bob Dole method of simply jamming a pen into his useless right fist, but the producers of Sesame Street didn’t want him carrying a sharp object around all those pre-school children.

Big Bird has attempted many alternative treatments for his floppy right wing over the years. Most notably, during the filming of “Follow That Bird”, one of the herbal treatments he was undergoing turned his plumage blue, forcing the filmmakers to rewrite the script to accomodate his unusual, and fortunately temporary, coloring.

It’s apparently genetic, however, as Big Bird’s cousin Pino from Holland suffers from the same malady.

Now for REAL Sesame scandal, investigate why the Grouch changed from orange to green after the first season of Sesame. Hint: It involves Roswell, Jimmy Hoffa, and Alice, the Brady’s housekeeper.

But I’ve said too much.

Haven’t seen the “new” BB, but isn’t it possible they’re using the same technology they did on Dinosaurs and and the Dark Crystal, and other assorted muppet fests? One guy in the suit operating both arms, one guy off camera remote controling the face?

(I feel so lame for not noticing Big Bird’s fishing line arm until I was like 15)

LOL! Thanks, I knew I could count on you guys for enlightenment!

And, PRNYouth, it was specifically the Journey to Ernie segments that aroused my suspicions…

Thanks again!

OT: Sesame Street is a SAP bilingual broadcast here, and it’s fun to switch between English and Japanese soundtracks. Some of the voices – especially Elmo – are spot-on.

Robusensei, today is the first day I’ve actually had the chance to watch Sesame Street since you posted your question. Besides a slightly surreal segment with Ernie, Rubber Duck, and Christopher Reeve saying the alphabet together, I was able to watch the Journey to Ernie segment and saw what you’re talking about regarding Big Bird having two working arms.

My earlier guesses were somewhat backwards. During the scenes where both of Big Bird’s hands (or wings) are being operated, he is stationary, and is the view of him is blocked from mid-torso down. What’s going on here is that there indeed ARE two folks in the puppet. In those scenes, he’s being operated like many other characters: one puppeteer (Matt Vogel) operates the head and left hand while another puppeteer operates the right hand. (In one scene it appeared that the same puppeteer was operating both hands while Matt only operated the head.)

So in those cases, Big Bird has been made into a more traditional puppet, with no bottom half. His operation in those scenes is identical to Cookie Monster, or Ernie, or from the other group of Muppets, Fozzie Bear, or Rowlf the Dog.

So there’s my clarification for ya, if anyone even cares anymore. This stuff fascinates me!

And for Muppet fans in general, there’s good news – on Wednesday, May 7th, 2003, Brian Henson, Jim’s son, announced that the Henson children are buying the company back from EMTV, the German company that’s owned it for the past several years.