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Big Bird's two gay dads

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.” Click to learn more...

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.

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.

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.


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by Anonymousreply 010/10/2012
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