Political Football

10.10.12

Big Bird’s Big Gay Love Story: From Birth to the 2012 Presidential Race

What if Romney and Obama, who’ve traded barbs about the beloved ‘Sesame Street’ character, discovered that the first Big Bird was the product of a profound partnership between two men that was in every way a marriage save by law? Michael Daly reports.

Word that the first presidential debate had made Big Bird a factor in the election reached the puppet’s sole surviving creator at his new home in New Zealand.

“Amazing,” says Christopher Lyall, who assisted the late Kermit Love in producing the first Big Bird, as well as the successors for decades afterward.

Lyall says of the present electoral process in general, “It’s very frustrating having to observe the political games and the lies.”

Lyall and Love were partners in work and life for half a century and in the 1980s traveled with Big Bird to the White House for the annual Easter egg roll. The most momentous results of that presidential nexus were the grass stains on Big Bird’s outsize feet. Nobody could have imagined that this puppet might someday play even the smallest role in deciding who would occupy the Oval Office.

“We’ll see,” Lyall says.

The possible political impact of this 8-foot-2 yellow plumed character takes a turn from the ridiculous to the delightfully apt when you consider this: Big Bird was the product of a profound partnership between two men that was in every way a marriage save for in the strictly legal sense that the law until very recently forbade.

“Where he was, I was,” Lyall says.

With a thumbnail sketch from Muppets creator Jim Henson of one of those toy birds that perch on the edge of a glass and dip their beaks, Love set to work. He summoned gifts he had begun developing in 1935 in a theater that was part of the Works Progress Administration, the economic-stimulus effort of its time. He had gone on to such projects as a 28-foot marionette for the 1965 Balanchine production of Don Quixote.

Video screenshot

President Obama defends Big Bird in an ad campaign.

As Love now undertook what was to be his most famous work, he enlisted his partner, Lyall, who had worked as a dress cutter in a garment factory before he left his native New Zealand to pursue a career as a dancer. Lyall had originally met Love while rehearsing for a show in London. The two had subsequently gotten together when Lyall visited America.

“He said, ‘Would you like to come to New York for a few days?’” Lyall says. “I said, ‘I only have a few days.’”

Soon after, Lyall moved stateside. Their match proved all the more perfect as they made Big Bird. Love began in a wondrous whirl, fashioning a kind of prototype.

“Patched together with bits and pieces,” Lyall says.

Lyall provided the supporting structure, employing quarter-inch nylon boning sheathed in muslin to facilitate sewing. He had been fascinated by the flat pattern makers in the garment factory back home, and he now made a scale drawing on brown paper, later to be used for full-size patterns.

Love insisted the feathers be ruffled just enough, the eyes be at just the right angle. ‘So it was looking at you,’ Lyall says. There was one guiding word to all the effort. ‘Integrity.’

The most time-intensive element was the feathers, which were always turkey feathers, dyed yellow. They were attached upside down, at Love’s insistence, to give Big Bird a slightly scruffy, ruffled look.

“[Kermit] was very particular about the way the bird looked, and he always got his way,” Lyall says. “He was a very determined person.”

The two labored with the boundless energy and tireless dedication that would be seen in the start-ups of later decades, but with a purer, more immediate goal.

“It wasn’t about money,” Lyall says. “It was about doing.”

And they kept doing, making a new Big Bird when an old one became worn and was relegated to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade now that wind and rain damage were no longer a big worry. Still more Big Birds were needed for concerts and street appearances.

Each new bird took roughly three weeks to make. Feathers remained the big challenge, even after a glue gun took the place of hand sewing. A crisis loomed when feathers became trendy in the fashion world, resulting in a shortage.

“The couture industry always got the priority,” Lyall says.

Love remained a perfectionist when it came to the bird.

“The way the bird looked, the way it was presented,” Lyall says.

Love insisted the feathers be ruffled just enough, the eyes be at just the right angle.

“So it was looking at you,” Lyall says.

There was one guiding word to all the effort.

“Integrity.”

When Big Bird had to travel, Love encased it in a kind of a hooped balloon rigged so it could be hung from the top. The bird would otherwise collapse on itself, possibly breaking the spines of the feathers.

“He wouldn’t let it out of his sight,” Lyall says. “It was his baby.”

Big Bird’s trips to the Easter egg roll at the White House began during the Nixon years and continued annually through the succeeding administrations. Lyall only accompanied Love once, in 1986, when Ronald Reagan was in office.

Beyond the grass stains on Big Bird’s feet, Love’s only gripe from any of these visits came on an occasion when the White House lawn had not been mowed.

“How are they supposed to have an Easter egg roll if they can’t find the eggs?” Love asked, by Lyall’s recollection.

Big Bird continued to embody inspired whimsy made perfect through hard work, but Love’s health began to fail. He became wheelchair-bound in the late 1990s but still got out to the movies and restaurants with Lyall’s unflagging care and loving attention.

“It’s what one does,” Lyall says. “You do it.”

In 2008, Love died of congestive heart failure at the age of 92. Lyall subsequently moved back to his native New Zealand, arriving in time for the big earthquake. His new home suffered more than $100,000 in damage.

“It’s a bit drafty,” says Lyall, who is now 75.

By then, the making of new Big Birds had passed to others, using the patterns that Lyall had made back at the inception decades before, but using shorter feathers and opting for a less scruffy look.

“Too groomed, too pretty,” Lyall says.

Preened or scruffy, Big Bird was the most unlikely of players in this year’s presidential campaign. And, for the current president, what might be termed the Big Bird factor must seem particularly surreal.

Obama had been in the midst of preparations for the first debate when he presided at a memorial service where the four Americans murdered in Libya lay in flag-draped coffins. The shadow of such realties had seemed to follow him onto the stage at Denver. He had seemed unsure how to respond when suddenly confronted by a Mitt Romney who recreated himself as if there was no reality at all.

In the aftermath, the only bright moment Obama’s stunned supporters could latch onto was Romney’s revelation that he likes Big Bird but was prepared to whack him. The guy who has elevators for his cars said there is just not enough money for Sesame Street and the rest of PBS.

In a little delayed Muppet magic at a campaign rally the next day, the subject caused Obama to loosen up, as he should have at the debate. Obama said of Romney, “He’ll get rid of regulations on Wall Street, but he’s going to crack down on Sesame Street. Thank goodness somebody is finally cracking down on Big Bird. Who knew that he was responsible for all these deficits?”

The Romney campaign responded by saying that with “23 million Americans struggling to find work,” it is “troubling that the president’s message, the president’s focus 28 days from Election Day, is Big Bird.”

The Sesame Workshop has asked the Obama campaign to take down an ad focusing on the flap, as it does not want any of its characters used to serve partisan politics. That echoed what the family of an ex-SEAL killed in Libya has said about their loved one.

Maybe we can at least respect the fallen warrior.

As for Big Bird, Sesame Street should restore the creature to its scruffy perfection no matter who wins the election.