Hidden talont

As Salford’s famous half-star Furchester Hotel opens its doors to an A-list celebrity, Antonia Charlesworth meets the man behind Big Bird’s yellow feathers

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Towering at eight feet tall and covered in luminous yellow feathers, Big Bird has migrated across the Atlantic to join his friends Cookie Monster and Elmo in Salford, where they’re staying at CBeebies’ Furchester Hotel. 

Created in 1969, Big Bird, who has remarkably never grown older than six, was famously brought to life by Caroll Spinney for more than 30 years. But since 2006 Matt Vogel who, at 46, was born a year after Big Bird, has stepped into the oversized talons.

“It was absolutely a daunting step,” Vogel tells Big Issue North while filming the preschool TV show at the CBeebies studios in MediaCityUK. “Big Bird is an icon of not just children’s television, but television in general. But Caroll was so gracious and kind and put me at ease – in fact, when I first met him and was introduced to him, his face lit up and he said, ‘Vogel? That’s ‘bird’ in German. This may be the job for you.’”

“Inside, Big Bird seems to glow yellow.

I feel cut off from the outside world.”

As a kid in the 1970s and eighties, Jim Henson, Sesame Street and The Muppets inspired Vogel. “I made my own puppets and entertained kids in the neighbourhood, but never thought being a puppeteer was something I could do as a job,” he says. But in 1993, Vogel earned a BFA in acting and when he moved to New York in late 1994, he met Jim Henson’s youngest son, John, who brought him in as an understudy. Vogel served as the assistant puppeteer for character Ernie – performing either one or both hands while Steve Whitmire performed the head and vocal. It wasn’t long after that that he was asked to audition for Big Bird, as a backup for live appearances, in front of Caroll Spinney.

“I think for those of us who have taken on roles originated by another, it certainly starts as an attempt at mimicking the original performer – the sound of the voice and the emotional textures. But the character can’t exist that way forever,” says Vogel of making Big Bird his own. “It has to have a life of its own that comes from you at some point. The performer has to eventually trust that they know the character – and know the emotional life of the character – and that they can be true to it. Over time, you bring a part of who you are to the character and it becomes part of who that character is. So, while I feel I know the music of Caroll’s Big Bird, and can replicate parts of it, I also bring something that’s more ‘me’, whether I’m trying or not.”

Matt Vogel

Vogel, who also operates Count von Count – coincidentally also visiting the Furchester this week – believes the reason for Big Bird’s enduring popularity is that he is an ‘everybird’. “He makes mistakes. He tries really hard and gets frustrated. He’s a little awkward at times because he’s bigger than almost everyone he knows. He’s got a big heart. He loves his friends. He’s not that different, really, from most of the children who watch him, so they see themselves in him and they can learn from him that it’s OK to make mistakes. It’s OK to be frustrated. It’s OK to be different.”

Getting into character, Vogel says, is easy: “Inside, Big Bird seems to glow yellow. The feathers are attached to boning and a mesh-covered helix that helps keep the bird’s shape, but as the light outside hits Big Bird, it creates a yellow hue inside the puppet. It’s a little distancing; I sometimes feel a little bit cut off from the outside world.” But how, exactly, does it work?

“My right arm is above my head, so my bicep is touching my right ear, and goes into the head of the puppet so I can operate the mouth. There’s also a lever inside the head that I can push with my pinky to make Big Bird’s eyelids move up or down – that helps with emotion,” he explains. Meanwhile, Vogel’s left arm is in the puppet’s left wing. A small, almost invisible, monofilament is attached to the left wing and leads up through a part of Big Bird’s chin and down to a point of his right wing, so that when Vogel raises his left arm (Big Bird’s left wing), the right wing lowers. “On top of all that, I am wearing a wireless television monitor that shows me what the viewer at home is seeing. That way, I can react to the other characters and see my own performance. It can be a little hot inside, depending on the length of time I’m in there and the physical movements I’m doing as well.”

But Vogel says the discomfort is worth it and won’t make him give up any time soon. “Being a Muppet performer is something I would love to do until I can no longer do it. It is a lifelong commitment for me and many of my colleagues.” He says the job of a Muppeteer is one to be taken very seriously, because it involves carrying on the legacy of Jim Henson and his group of collaborators. But, he adds: “While we are serious about that commitment, we spend a great deal of our time on set laughing and enjoying the process of creating what kids are going to watch and learn from.”

The Sesame Street audience has changed considerably since 1969 – are kids more difficult to entertain in the digital age? “I have five kids. My oldest is 15 and my youngest is almost four,” says Vogel. “For my oldest, the only way to see Sesame Street when he was young was to watch it on TV. The world has changed dramatically since my first was born, and now, my youngest watches programmes on a tablet, or his mum’s cell phone, or on our home computer. I think Sesame Street has always been and will always be about innovating and evolving. I believe you can change with the times and not lose sight of what your mission is. Sesame’s is to help kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder, which is why the partnership with CBeebies works so well. I think Sesame Workshop [the non-profit organisation behind the show] will continue to find ways to reach kids through new and exciting platforms, just as they have since day one.”

The Big Q&A

What kind of bird are you?
A BIG bird.

Why aren’t you small, like a normal bird? You are only six years old. Will you grow much more?
Gee, there’s no such thing as a normal bird! Every bird is different. You just have to be the best bird you can be. I’ll probably get a lot taller. Granny Bird says I haven’t even had my growth spurt yet.

You usually live on Sesame Street but have been staying in the Furchester Hotel. Have you got homesick?
No, not at all! Because everyone at the Furchester has made me feel at home! They welcomed me with furry arms. And I get to see some of my friends from Sesame Street – Elmo and Cookie Monster. And the Count came with me.

What has it been like visiting the Furchester Hotel?
I’ve never stayed in a hotel before. It’s so much fun! They even made a nest out of feather pillows just for me! No wonder the Furchester has a half-star rating.

Did you fly to Salford?
Yes! I had to get a seat with extra, extra, EXTRA legroom. And I ordered the special birdseed meal. Now I know what it’s like to be the kind of bird that flies.

Who are your favourite friends on Sesame Street?
Well, my very best friend is Snuffy. He’s a snuffleupagus. But I love all my friends, even Oscar the Grouch, even if he is kinda grouchy.

Why did Big Bird cross the road?
Oh, I never cross the road by myself. I always hold a grown-up’s hand.

The Furchester Hotel is on the BBC iPlayer. Big Bird appears in the first episode and will also appear in the Furchester Hotel Christmas special. 

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