Kermit Love: Designer of Big Bird
Saturday 19 July 2008
With a background in designing costumes and marionettes for ballet productions, Kermit Love created for television a towering, iconic character that would achieve worldwide fame in a programme acclaimed for its educational qualities. The 8ft 2in Big Bird, with bright-yellow feathers, orange legs and big feet, is one of the mainstays of the American series Sesame Street, aimed at pre-school children and set to celebrate its 40th anniversary next year.
The producer Jim Henson, who created the Muppets for Sesame Street before transferring them to their own show, originally drew sketches of Big Bird, who lives in a large nest on a rubbish heap. Love then turned Henson's brainchild into outsize reality, giving Big Bird manhole-sized orange foam feet and adding feathers, some of which were designed to fall off –"not unlike a tree shedding leaves in the fall," he said – to make the character cuter. Viewers have watched Big Bird sing, draw and write poetry, as well as roller-skate, ice-skate and dance.
In 1973, Love and Caroll Spinney – the puppeteer inside the costume – performed Big Bird children's shows around the world. The character, packed in a big, hooped sack, had his own plane seat – and, at a perennial six years old, travelled on half-price tickets.
Love also designed the costumes and puppets for other regular characters in Sesame Street, such as Mr Snuffleupagus (Big Bird's 7ft tall, woolly mammoth-like best friend), Oscar the Grouch and the Cookie Monster, and he appeared in front of the cameras himself as Willy, the neighbourhood's hot-dog vendor.
Born in Spring Lake, New Jersey, in 1916, on leaving school Love became a puppet-maker for a theatre company. Switching to costume design, he worked for Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre in New York, before progressing to Broadway productions such as The Fireman's Flame (1937-38) and One Touch of Venus (starring Mary Martin, 1943-45).
Following his costume design for the New York City Ballet and Agnes de Mille's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production of Rodeo (1942), Love worked with Jerome Robbins on Broadway for the ballet Fancy Free (1946) and with other leading choreographers. With George Balanchine, his creations for Don Quixote (1965) included a 28ft-tall marionette giant.
Then came Sesame Street, with Love also designing characters for 22 foreign versions of the programme. His most famous character, Big Bird, also made a cameo appearance in The Muppet Movie (1979).
Jim Henson insisted that his Muppet Kermit the Frog's name was settled before he met Love, who went into semi-retirement in the 1990s, although he continued to work with the Joffrey Ballet. His partner of 50 years was Christopher Lyall.
Kermit Ernest Hollingshead Love, costume designer and puppeteer: born Spring Lake, New Jersey 7 August 1916; died Poughkeepsie, New York 21 June 2008.
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