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.

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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

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