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

Ladysmith RCMP safely escorted the black bear to the woods near Ladysmith Cemetary. (Town of Ladysmith/Facebook photo)
UPDATE: Black bear tranquillized, being relocated by conservation officers

A juvenile black bear was spotted near 2nd Avenue earlier Friday morning

A B.C. Centre for Disease Control map showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 25-May 1. (BCCDC image)
Vancouver Island’s COVID-19 case counts continue to trend down

Fewer than 200 active cases on the Island, down from highs of 500-plus earlier this spring

Ladysmith resident Bonnie Cook lost the use of most of her basement and her backyard after experiencing a major water leak. (Cole Schisler photo)
Drip by drip: water line leaks lead to big repair bills for Ladysmith homeowners

Nearly all reported leaks occur on old copper lines that have been bent or manipulated

Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ superintendent Scott Saywell at a May 6 press event showing off two new electric school buses. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)
Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district shows off electric buses

New buses anticipated to reduce 17 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from SD68 buses

An Ater-group Airon Slug identified during YES’s Bio-Blitz. (Yellow Point Ecological Society photo)
Yellow Point Ecological Society’s Bio-Blitz a big success

The Yellow Point Ecological Society held their first-ever Bio-Blitz over the weekend… Continue reading

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to start releasing neighbourhood-specific COVID numbers after data leak

Documents obtained by the Vancouver Sun show cases broken down by neighbourhoods

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix update B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, April 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count creeps up, seven more deaths

445 people in hospital, 157 in intensive care

Summerland’s positive test rate is much higher than surrounding local health areas, according to internal BC CDC documents. (BC CDC)
Summerland 3rd behind Surrey, Abbotsford in daily per capita COVID-19 cases

Interior Health is rolling out additional vaccine availability to the community

Amazon is pausing its Prime Day marketing event in Canada this year amid ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks at its facilities in Ontario. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Amazon Prime Day halted in Canada due to COVID-19 outbreaks in warehouses

The event was postponed to protect the health and safety of employees and customers, the company says

Ally Thomas, 12, seen in an undated family handout photo, died on April 14 from a suspected overdose. Her family says they are frustrated more public supports weren't available when they tried to get her help. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Minister says suspected overdose death of 12-year-old pushing B.C. to ‘do better’

Minister Sheila Malcolmson of Mental Health and Addictions says the government is working ‘as hard as we can’ to build a system of care for youths

At this Highway 3 check point, police officers will be asking for identification from drivers, documentation regarding the driver’s name and address, and the purpose for the driver’s travel. (RCMP)
No fines handed out at 1st COVID-19 roadblock as checks move across B.C.

Cpl. Chris Manseau says a total of 127 vehicles were stopped at a roadblock in the Manning Park area

A spectator looks on as the Olympic Caldron is relit in downtown Vancouver, Wednesday, February 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Small majority of B.C. residents in favour of a Vancouver 2030 Olympic bid: survey

A new survey shows a split over the possibility of public money being spent to organize and host the winter games

Most Read