Kurt Bayer

Kurt Bayer is an APNZ reporter based in Christchurch.

Big Bird's election act upsets Kiwi creator

My Lyall said Big Bird "shouldn't be used that way".
My Lyall said Big Bird "shouldn't be used that way".

When Christchurch-born dancer Christopher Lyall helped transform a squiggly Jim Henson sketch into a feathered yellow giant, little did he know his creation would delight children across the world for generations.

And he certainly didn't think his beloved Big Bird would help decide who will be the next President of the United States.

"I just shake my head, he shouldn't be used that way," Mr Lyall said yesterday from his earthquake-damaged home overlooking Christchurch.

The 75-year-old, who lives alone with two pug dogs, was reluctant to talk about Big Bird yesterday.

"It was a long time ago," he said, referring to 1969, when he and long-term partner Kermit Love brought to life a thumbnail sketch by Henson, the creator of the Muppets, for a new TV show to educate preschoolers.

The Democrats' Obama campaign has hijacked Big Bird for an advertisement that uses the character to attack Republican rival Mitt Romney.

Romney said in a presidential debate last week that he would cut funding to PBS, the public broadcaster behind the hit kids' show.

PBS has asked Obama's team to pull the advert, which has created headlines worldwide. But Mr Lyall doesn't want to get dragged into a political slanging match. Even though he was once a professional dancer, he is shy, even reclusive, and prefers to stay out of the limelight.

"Kermit loved the spotlight but I always stayed out of it. I hope it'll blow over quite quickly," he said.

Mr Lyall returned to Christchurch after Mr Love, his partner of 50 years, died in 2008.

Even his neighbours didn't know of his celebrity past, which began when he fell in love with Mr Love while rehearsing for a West End show in London.

Their big break came in the late 1960s while helping Henson kickstart Sesame Street. They were tasked with designing a costume for a large bird who would be central to the educational show.

Mr Lyall's background as an apprentice dress cutter at Millers department store in Christchurch came in handy. "The designers were on the same floor as the cutters in those days, and I got interested in making clothing from a purely amateur point of view. It served me well."

Mr Lyall built the frame for the 2.5m Big Bird costume, while Mr Love designed the bright yellow exterior and outsized feet.

When the show went to air, it soon became a huge success.

"It was wonderful to be involved in, but you don't think of it at the time. You just got on with it. It was hands-on and I was doing something I was familiar with. It was life-consuming for a lot of people, not necessarily me, but it was interesting times."

Mr Love also helped design other costumes and puppets. He even appeared on the show as Willy, the neighbourhood's resident hot dog vendor.

But Mr Lyall stayed in the background, living in New York and working on bird costumes, each of which took three weeks to make. Big Bird became a US national treasure, and often visited the White House. Mr Lyall accompanied Mr Love on a visit in 1986 when Ronald Reagan was President.

But Sesame Street - being a non-profit organisation - was always careful to remain impartial. Mr Lyall is hoping the political scandal will soon die down and let him return to being the quiet, artistic neighbour with the secret celebrity past.

- APNZ

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