FILE - This April 10, 2008 file photo shows Lynn Finkel, stage manager for "Sesame Street," slates a taping with Big Bird, performed by Caroll Spinney, in New York. The popular children’s TV show is celebrating its 50th year. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

FILE - This April 10, 2008 file photo shows Lynn Finkel, stage manager for "Sesame Street," slates a taping with Big Bird, performed by Caroll Spinney, in New York. The popular children’s TV show is celebrating its 50th year. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

Sense of empathy, kindness floats over ‘Sesame Street’ set

While some rod puppets like Elmo require one puppeteer, it takes two to manipulate others

There’s something circular about Matt Vogel’s career, which is perfectly appropriate for the star of an educational children’s show.

As a boy, he watched Big Bird on TV. As an adult, he worked alongside Big Bird. Now he is Big Bird.

Vogel inherited the feathered yellow suit and voice last year after two decades of understudying master puppeteer Caroll Spinney, and he says nowadays he tries to channel how he felt watching Big Bird as a child.

“I felt like he knew how I felt, and he understood me,” Vogel said. “And that’s kind of what I try to bring to him now, thinking that maybe some child at home is looking at Big Bird and thinking, ‘That’s how I feel. That’s exactly what I think.’”

That sense of empathy and kindness seems to float over the main set at “Sesame Street.” A visit to the busy lot by The Associated Press earlier this year in the borough of Queens found monsters and humans creating a special alchemy. There was exacting precision as well as childlike glee.

The main brownstone house and welcoming stoop — with the No. 123 address, naturally — is in one corner, with a subway entrance and newsstand facing it, and Mr. Hooper’s well-stocked grocery store and a laundromat between them. Around the corner is Big Bird’s massive nest.

A sly playfulness is on show at the newsstand, where stacks of tabloid newspapers that closely resemble the New York Post scream “Dial ‘G’ for Grouch.”

“The show never talks down. We’re not a baby show. We’re made for preschoolers, but we like to think the entertainment value is good enough to reach adults,” said Benjamin Lehmann, executive producer.

While some rod puppets like Elmo require one puppeteer, it takes two to manipulate Ernie, Rosita, The Count, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Telly Monster and Snuffleupagus. (The Snuffleupagus suit is so massive it hangs from the rafters when not being used).

It takes a lot of work to create a season’s worth of 35 zesty episodes, each 26 minutes long. On this day, the cast and staff are recording segments for a star-studded prime-time special in honour of the show’s 50th anniversary hosted by actor Joseph Gordon Levitt.

In one segment, Levitt walks across the set surrounded by around 10 or so animals, monsters and Grover. Puppeteers perform holding their puppets high in the air while sitting on little round scooters on wheels — they call them “rollies” — and watching monitors on the ground to make sure they’re keeping their creatures in the frame.

HAPPY 50th: ‘Sesame Street’ characters talk favourite celebrity guests

They practice the sequence once or twice before the celebrity is brought in and the heaviest costumes are put on the puppeteers. More than once, the whole parade was stopped and restarted after a stray arm was spotted by the director. Sometimes a full day of filming produces just 10 minutes of show. It’s start-stop work but everyone seemed cheerful.

“I think a lot of people who work on ‘Sesame Street’ are here because our mission is to make kids smarter, stronger and kinder and that those lessons that we impart to them stay with them,” Lehmann said.

“You know Joseph Gordon Levitt is the perfect example because he’s watching it with his kids now, but you can see he’s a fan.”

On the set, Vogel’s main task is Big Bird, but he has also inherited voicing and manipulating for the Count and the title of puppet captain. That means he sits in on production meetings and lets directors and producers know the limits of puppetry.

“Can we throw a chicken through the frame? How many ducks can we fit in a wheelbarrow? Things like that,” he said. “We try to come up with the best methods so our directors can get the shots that they want.”

Mild-mannered and patient, Vogel said he was inspired by master puppeteer Jim Henson and watched the show that icon helped produce. He never imagined the show held a job he could do, much less that of the iconic yellow 8-foot-4-inch tall Big Bird.

“Once I was here on ‘Sesame Street,’ I connected with that little child in me again and I realized l, ‘Oh my gosh, I think I can grow up to work on “Sesame Street.” This can be a dream.’ And I’m living it.”

Perhaps it was fate. After all, Vogel means bird in German.

Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Interior Health reported 79 new cases of COVID-19 and two new death in the region Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (Ben Hohenstatt/Juneau Empire)
79 new COVID-19 cases, two deaths reported in Interior Health

Both of Friday’s deaths were both recorded at long-term care homes

(File photo)
Interior Health declares COVID-19 outbreak at Teck’s Elk Valley operations over

48 cases were linked to three Teck locations in the Elk Valley

(File photo)
Sparwood backs calls to declare Canadian overdose crisis a national public health emergency

Paramedics across B.C. responded to more overdose calls in 2020 than ever before

The district of Sparwood is seeking feedback on its Recreation Master Plan. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)
Non-medical cannabis store proposed for Sparwood

If approved, Elk Valley Cannabis would be the first cannabis business in the district

Natalie Joynes, Theo Hepher, Kai Dedey, and Sophia Becker sit on a blanket enjoying FYAN’s summer youth programming. (Soranne Floarea/ The Free Press)
Job Readiness Workshops available for local youth

Registration is now open for the series of free virtual workshops

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin sets up for mass vaccination clinic in Toronto, Jan. 17, 2021. B.C. is set to to begin its large-scale immunization program for the general public starting in April. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
B.C.’s COVID-19 mass vaccinations expected to start in April

Clinics to immunize four million people by September

Sunnybank in Oliver. (Google Maps)
Sunnybank long-term care in Oliver reports third COVID-19 death

The facility currently has an outbreak with 35 cases attached to it

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a daily briefing in Ottawa. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
31 cases of COVID-19 variants detected in Canada: Health officials

Dr. Theresa Tam made announces 13 more variant COVID-19 cases in Canada

Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops. (Dave Eagles/Kamloops This Week file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak declared at Kamloops’ Royal Inland Hospital surgical unit

Despite 6 South being a surgical unit, RIH said surgeries are continuing at the hospital

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Daily COVID-19 cases reported to each B.C. health region, to Jan. 20, 2021. Island Health in blue, Northern Health green, Interior Health orange, Vancouver Coastal in red and Fraser Health in purple. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate stays stable with 508 cases Friday

Vaccine delivered to more than 110,000 high-risk people

Volunteer firefighters from Grand Forks Fire/Rescue head towards the scene of fatal car crash near Gibbs Creek Road, below Highway 3, Thursday evening, Jan. 21. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Motorist dies in Highway 3 crash west of Grand Forks

City first responders were called to the scene Thursday evening, Jan. 21

Vancouver Giants defenceman Bowen Byram could be playing for Colorado when the NHL resumes play. (Rik Fedyck/file)
Cranbrook product Bowen Byram makes NHL debut with Avalanche

Highly touted prospect marks first pro game following World Junior tournament in Alberta

The District of Saanich’s communications team decided to take part in a viral trend on Thursday and photoshopped U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders into a staff meeting photo. (District of Saanich/Twitter)
Bernie Sanders makes guest appearance municipal staff meeting in B.C.

Vancouver Island firefighters jump on viral trend of photoshopped U.S. senator

Most Read