Creator of Big Bird Costume Remembered

Kermit Love, the costume designer who helped puppeteer Jim Henson create Big Bird and other Sesame Street characters, has died. Carroll Spinney, the puppeteer who plays Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, remembers him.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Kermit Love, who died last week, contributed one of the most familiar images to the modern media landscape, if not to the American imagination. Love was a costume designer who worked with George Ballinsheen, with Twyla Tharp. He made a giant marionette of Don Quixote. He made the wings of Stravinsky's Firebird. But we all know of his creativity for another bird he designed.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Sesame Street")

Mr. CAROLL SPINNEY (Actor): Sesame Street was brought to you today by the letter P and by the number 13.

SIEGEL: On "Sesame Street," he made the suit for, among others, Big Bird. Caroll Spinney has spent many years inside that suit, and he joins us from his home right how. And Caroll Spinney, tell us about Kermit Love, who actually appeared on Sesame Street. So we would recognize his face, I guess.

Mr. SPINNEY: Well, you would. He looked a great deal like Santa Claus. He was known as Willy the Hotdog Man.

SIEGEL: First, we should dispense with something people might wrongly suspect. His being named Kermit has nothing to do with Kermit the Frog being named…

Mr. SPINNEY: No. He was always a - he said, I'm not Kermit the Frog. He wasn't named after me, either. I'm just Kermit the person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: What was his talent? What was his particular talent?

Mr. SPINNEY: Well, he was great building things theatrical. Like, for instance, for Ballinsheen, he recreated Picasso's "Rodeo," and he redressed it based on the photos of the - imagine the characters. They were very Picasso-like, with a horse, for instance, both eyes would be on one side of the head - kind of a bizarre Picasso look.

SIEGEL: And the costume that you wore? I mean, how did that one come about?

Mr. SPINNEY: Yes, he was - Jim Henson, who created the Muppets, was told of Kermit's abilities for building things. So he commissioned Kermit to come to the Muppet workshop because he was planning to build a large, silly bird puppet so big you could get inside. And he hired Kermit to build the bird. And so it was literally built around me. And it's made of a series of hoops, creating his general outline - like, sort of like a fuselage on a plane.

SIEGEL: Well, you would be the most important judge as to whether it was a comfortable Big Bird suit to wear. Was it? And did you talk with him, with Kermit Love about that?

Mr. SPINNEY: Yes, we tried to make it as much. But there's a rule, sort of, in puppetry. And it generally is if you're comfortable, you're probably doing it wrong. For instance, Big Bird's head weighs four-and-a-half pounds. And the puppet head is in my hand, and that rises a full foot above the top of my head, which is bent over.

SIEGEL: He was 91 when he died.

Mr. SPINNEY: Yes. For years, he never would give his age. But - and he wasn't big on writing letters, but I got a letter last year from him. He says, would you believe it? I'm 90. Kermit. That was the only letter I ever got from him.

SIEGEL: Well, Caroll Spinney, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SPINNEY: It was a pleasure. Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Caroll Spinney, the man inside Big Bird, talking about the late Kermit Love, who designed that costume.

Mr. SPINNEY: Kermit, we're going to miss you. It's me, Big Bird. Bye, Kermit.

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