September 26, 1916 – Kermit Ernest Hollingshead Love
Kermit Love was the costume designer for some the dance world’s most iconic productions, but he was also the creator of beloved Sesame Street characters such Big Bird, who for some reason is much maligned by Republicans.
Love costumed the original productions of the first great American ballets, Rodeo and Fancy Free, was George Balanchine‘s visual advisor for half a century, and directed Twyla Tharp‘s modern look.
Love may have collaborated with the biggest of the bigs: Agnes de Mille, Robert Joffrey, Jerome Robbins, but it is an eight-foot, two-inch, yellow-feathered bird and his seven-foot, woolly mammoth-ish friend that he is most remembered; if he’s remembered.
Jim Henson, (1936-1990) a co-creator of the Sesame Street characters, did the original sketches of Big Bird. Love built the bird, with its manhole-sized orange foam feet. He added feathers, with some designed to fall off, to make the creature cuter. Caroll Spinney, the man inside the bird, controlled Big Bird’s mouth with his hand and the eyes with a lever attached to his pinky finger. A television monitor was later placed inside the puppet to allow Spinney to see the set.
Love played Willy The Hot Dog Man on the show, and he also helped design Oscar The Grouch and Cookie Monster. He insisted he was not the namesake of that famous frog. He created 22 characters for the series, including some of the Sesame Street versions in other countries.
Love’s costumes and masks for Dance that brought him to the attention of Henson. He did cowboys and showgirls for the Agnes de Mille ballet Rodeo (1942); abstract stretchable shapes for Merce Cunningham‘s The Wind Remains (1943) and sailors suits and dames’ dresses for Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944). For Balanchine, he designed costumes plus a 28-foot marionette for Don Quixote (1965) and the wings for The Firebird (1972).
Balanchine and Love collaborated in 1981 on L’enfant Et Les Sortileges (1929), a one-act opera with music by queer Maurice Ravel to a libretto by bisexual Colette, that tells the tale of a bratty boy who tears up his house and tortures his cat and squirrel, but is then taught lessons by objects that come to life. For a television production of the work, Love created the sets and costumes, including dancing chairs, a clock that spins away from a wall and life-size owls, frogs and dragonflies.
Those fantastical creatures in Joffrey Ballet‘s The Nutcracker were made with love by Love.
He had also worked in film and theatre, including doing costumes for Broadway shows like the musical One Touch Of Venice (1943) with Mary Martin.
Despite his assumed English, sometimes French, accent, Love was born in Spring Lake, N.J. He was fascinated by puppets as a kid. A horse-riding accident at 12 years old left him bedridden for three years. He would listen to radio shows and draw pictures of what he imagined the characters looked like.
He began making puppets for the Works Progress Administration’s Theatre (WPA) in the 1930s and he designed costumes and acted for Orson Welles‘s famed Mercury Theater.
Love worked until the end of his life on Muppet creations, sometimes puppeteering as well. He also designed the bear for Snuggle commercials, and other beastie mascots, but Big Bird was his baby.
Love carried pictures of his Muppets in his wallet. He and Spinney, now 85 years old and who has been inside the bird get-up from the start, travelled the world doing live shows for the kiddies. Big Bird was given his own seat on the plane to Beijing for a gig in 1973, but was charged half-price, because the character in perpetually six years old. Everybody seems to love Big Bird… except the GOP.
Christopher Lyall was Love’s his partner of more than 50 years. Lyall also worked at Sesame Street, but after Love’s passing in 2008, he returned to his native New Zealand, not to be heard from again.