I learned something fascinating on Sunday about Big Bird. 

Sadly, I only came across this story because the man who portrayed him for nearly 50 years, Carol Spinney, passed away over the weekend. I read Spinney's short 2003 memoir, The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch), as a result.

In it, Spinney revealed a minor technological feat let him develop and play such an unusually empathetic character, all while wearing a bulky, eight-foot costume that left him "virtually blind" to the world around him.

The technology also changed his perspective, however. I suspect it might have you thinking differently about how you interact with other people, too.

The Big Bird origin story

Here's the history. Jim Henson recruited Spinney to the launch of Sesame Street in 1969, after he'd a professional puppeteer and entertainer on other shows. 

Henson and his team came up with the first versions of Big Bird and Oscar, but Spinney was supposed their personalities and characters.

His first move was to change Big Bird's backstory. Henson had described the idea of Big Bird as "yokel" or "a silly guy from the country."

But Spinney thought he'd connect with the children watching the show if he played Big Bird as a perpetual four-and-a-half-year old child.

There was also another problem. He couldn't see anything while he wore the costume. 

"I could only peek between the feathers," he wrote. "I'd often stumble over things, bump into walls and parts of the set, and walk off camera in the wrong direction."

'I see the same picture the viewer sees'

So, Spinney credits two other people on the show with in innovative solution: they rigged a small television inside the Big Bird costume itself, so that Spinney could see what the cameras were filing in real time.

Keep in mind, this was 1969, so it was a much bigger deal than it would be today.

It also meant that when he was acting as Big Bird, Spinney had a much different perspective than almost anyone else in the world enjoys.

"The moment I had the monitor inside the Bird, my performances became much better," he wrote in his memoir. "I had room in the puppet to look down on the tiny picture and see what the Bird was doing. I see the same picture the viewer sees, not the world form the Bird's point of view.

Think about this for a minute.

We talk so much about emotional intelligence and empathy, and about putting yourself in somebody else's shoes.

We talk about working to see how other people perceive your actions and words, not just seeing them from your own perspective.

From almost the beginning, Spinney brought life to an incredibly empathetic character that made a real connection with young viewers, and became an icon. All the while, he had a secret little trick.

He literally saw the character from other people's points of view.

I found my purpose

I think that would be a nice legacy, if even just for a day or two, some of us thought of Big Bird, and made an extra effort to try to see things from others' points of view.

Spinney stayed at Sesame Street until 2018, voicing Big Bird and Oscar even after health issues (he had a condition called dystonia, that can cause involuntary muscle contractions), made it impossible for him to handle the puppetry.

He retired last year, after recording episodes that would last into the 50th anniversary.

"Before I came to Sesame Street, I didn't feel like what I was doing was very important. Big Bird helped me find my purpose," Spinney said at the time

In 1982, one of the four original human characters on the show, Will Lee who played a storekeeper named Mr. Hooper, died.

After considering whether the subject of death was too traumatic for young children, Sesame Street shot an 11-minute segment in which Big Bird (remember, he's perpetually a child) learns about death.

The show won a Daytime Emmy, and has been lauded for showing how to explain death to young children. Here's a link to it on Youtube.

Published on: Dec 9, 2019
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