Kermit Love poses in 1981 with a puppet from PBS's Great Performances/Dance in America. ((Educational Broadcasting Corp./Gerard Murrell/Associated Press))

Kermit Love, the costume designer who helped puppeteer Jim Henson create Big Bird and other Sesame Street characters, has died. He was 91.

Love died from congestive heart failure Saturday in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., near his home in Stanfordville, Love's longtime partner, Christopher Lyall, told the New York Times.

In addition to his work with Henson, Love was a designer for some of ballet's most prominent choreographers, including Twyla Tharp, Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine.

Love also designed costumes and puppets for film and advertising, including the Snuggle bear from fabric softener commercials.

Sesame Street, U.S. public television's groundbreaking effort to use TV to teach preschoolers, premiered in 1969. Henson did the original sketches of Big Bird and Love then built the 2.5-metre yellow feathered costume.

It was Love's idea to add a few feathers designed to fall off, to create a more realistic feel.

"The most important thing about puppets is that they must project their imagination, and then the audience must open their eyes and imagine," he told the New York Times in 1981.

Love also helped design costumes and puppets for Mr. Snuffleupagus, Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster, among other characters. He appeared on the show as Willy, Sesame Street's resident hot dog vendor.

Love always insisted Henson's famous frog wasn't named for him.


Love suggested a few feathers fall off of Big Bird, shown here in 2008, to make him more realistic. ((Mark Lennihan/Associated Press))

"Kermit was definitely a totally unique person," said Caroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird since Sesame Street began. "He looked very much like Santa Claus but was a little bit more like the Grinch."

In addition to designing the Big Bird costume, "Kermit really helped me with dramatic coaching, and he was wonderful at that," he said.

Born in 1916, Love began making puppets for a federal Works Progress Administration theatre in 1935. He also designed costumes for Orson Welles's Mercury Theater. From there, he began working with the New York City Ballet's costumer.

In his 2003 book, The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons From a Life in Feathers, Spinney recalled that after a year on Sesame Street, he contemplated leaving because he couldn't live in New York on his salary.

Love told him to give it a month; the next week, Big Bird was on the cover of Time magazine and Spinney couldn't imagine leaving.