Behind Every (Big) Bird, a Story

Why is our favorite feathered friend standing in the middle of the Strip?

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bigbirdnocreditSo much to love in this city. Sometimes I visit the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign to glom onto tourists’ giddiness. The scene today: a 5-year-old boy fresh from his aunt’s wedding, wearing a turquoise tuxedo, white Nikes and a fedora; four guys in striped soccer jerseys who leapt into the air simultaneously for their Fabulous photo; and Big Bird.

Yep. Big Bird. Over 7 feet tall, yellow feathers blowing in the wind, bright orange legs, substantial beak. He’s just chillin’ on a stool on the median in front of the sign, cars rushing by. Hmm. I ask myself, because I am a reporter with keen instincts, What’s the connection between Big Bird and Las Vegas?

I saunter over to the Bird.

“Hello?” I speak in the general direction of his googly eyes.

“Hey.” The voice comes from his chest.

“What’s up?”

“Aw, nothing. Just watching a movie.”


Fast and Furious 6.”

I wasn’t asking which movie. I was asking something more like, What do you mean, you’re watching a movie? Are you high? You’re sitting in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard in a Big Bird suit. It’s 100 degrees out here. Have you lost your way to Sesame Street? Have you lost your way in a more metaphysical sense? Or—please tell me no—is there some sort of new Big Bird Does Vegas awful stripper porn thing happening now?

Turns out, this is not your average Las Vegan in a costume posing in pictures for tourist money. In fact, I’ve stopped at our welcome sign in the middle of a weekday and met Lionel Douglass, who played Big Bird on the Sesame Street Live tour, was a body double for Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies, and is now, at 58, an ordained minister sitting inside a homemade, air-conditioned version of his former stage-bird self.

The costume is specially designed with a generous midriff to accommodate his water-fueled cooling system and an iPad. Inside, he’s watching movies and texting his wife. Outside, he’s just sitting there all big and misplaced and lovable beside a donation can, which has only a couple of bucks in it right now. When I ask him how much he makes in a typical day, he says, “Well, I don’t want to get the IRS all over me, but let’s just say it’s worth it.”

I can hear him smiling when he says it, but all I can see is this giant, pop-eyed megabird who, for a second, seems to be staring me down. Don’t get the IRS on me. Then he laughs. It’s not the nasally, naive voice of the children’s icon; it’s the seasoned voice of a man who still likes to entertain.

He and his wife retired here from Irvine, California, a few years ago, but he wasn’t cut out for golf. He missed the show—not so much Sesame Street, but the people who parade in front of him, the cast of characters who populate the everlasting audience. He wrote a book about Big Bird, life, God and showbiz called Feathers of a Color: What It Was Like Playing the Famous Bigbird [sic], and then he took up a piece of sidewalk on the Las Vegas Strip, where he’s now available for weddings.

Just as I start to fall into Big Bird’s dreamy eyes, a human hand reaches out of his feathered mesh chest to give me a business card, and then disappears back inside.