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“I am Big Bird – the Caroll Spinney story”

Several huge treats today. Not only is the sun shining (though it’s still damn cold with a cutting wind), and not only did I get to go to the movies with my beloved friend Ken, who’s 79 with the smile of an 8 year old, but the film we saw was “I am Big Bird – the Caroll Spinney story.” If you’re in Toronto, it’s on at the Hot Docs Festival, and it’s a must see.

Made me weep. What a surprise. But also laugh a lot. The very moving story of a man with a difficult childhood – a supportive mother and a very angry father, a miserable adolescence – who loved puppets from childhood and eventually met Jim Henson and was invited to work with the Muppets. He was part of the inaugural season of Sesame Street as both sunny, innocent Big Bird and the bird’s opposite, Oscar the Grouch.

At the question period afterwards, I put up my hand but didn’t get to ask the question: Do you think you’re channelling your parents in your characters – your sweet-natured mother in Big Bird, your furious father in Oscar? I ran into the producer afterwards and asked him the same question. He said, I don’t think anyone has ever asked that. But it’s so obvious!

The film is a love story. Spinney’s first marriage produced 3 children but was wretched; his first wife (like his father, at least in the early days) had no respect for or interest in his work. And this is a man who lives for and through his characters. He was suicidal but managed to divorce and subsequently met the love of his life, Deb, a woman as sunny and loving as Big Bird, who travels with Spinney and keeps him going. In interviews with his now-adult kids, it’s clear he was a warm and lively father. “I don’t remember a bad time with him,” said his son.

The man is now 80 and has spent much of his life – 45 years – encased inside a huge yellow costume with giant orange feet. He has no intention of quitting yet. The film showed how famous Big Bird is around the world, how popular and beloved everywhere – the universal child in us all. It even intimated that Mitt Romney lost the election because he disparaged PBS and Big Bird. Hooray!

At one point, the doc veers off into strange territory about a terrible murder that happened on the Spinney’s country property – a man they’d hired to do some stonework brutally murdered a woman jogging through their land. I wondered why this bit was there until it became clear – it was showing the grace with which they handled real life horror and tragedy. The woman’s husband remained enraged at the blameless Spinneys, who’d created a garden in honour of his slain wife. Eventually, the husband ran into Spinney at the grocery story and asked for a hug and a talk, and they are now friends.

It’s a film about the rare man who spends his life doing exactly the right job and living with exactly the right partner. It’s the kind of film that makes you feel bigger as you leave, kinder, more open and connected. Highly recommended.

AND Deb Spinney is a kindred spirit! She says in the film that it’s been an honour to meet many famous people, including Bob Hope and Waylon Jennings. The one person she’s still hoping to meet is … Paul McCartney! “Just puttin’ it out there,” she says. She’d enjoy my book, I thought. There was a copy in my purse I was intending to drop off for my bank manager on the way home, and at the end, I gave it to a Festival worker to give to Deb. He came back to tell me she had it.

So Deb Spinney, fellow Paul fan, now has my book, signed “To Dave, with many thanks.”

At the question period afterwards, Spinney got Oscar out of a bag, so Oscar was part of question period. And there’s no question that he was there.

The two directors, Deb, Caroll, the producer and the interviewer.

And now, Oscar is there too.

In other news, speaking of beautiful and inspiring older men, it was Wayson’s 75th birthday the other day, and there was, of course, a celebration.

And – speaking of adorable younger men, a few days before that my dear son came over and cooked me dinner using just what he found in the fridge – salmon with mango chutney and veggies. Paris and Rome had nothing on this.

Blessed blessed blessed. Thank you, universe.



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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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