Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was among the most famous, enduring, and fondly-remembered children's television shows. Host Fred Rogers used his gentle charm and mannerisms to communicate with his audience of children. Topics centered on nearly every conceivable matter of concern to children, ranging from everyday fears related to going to sleep, getting immunizations and disappointment about not getting one's way to losing a loved one to death and physical handicaps. One of his strong beliefs was to not talk down to, patronize, or belittle his child audience when dealing with material.
Rogers used simple songs and, on nearly every show, segments from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to make his point. The fantasy neighborhood was inhabited by puppet characters including King Friday XIII, Lady Elaine Fairchild and Daniel Striped Tiger. (Rogers also supplied the voices of many of the puppet characters.)
The program was taped at WQED-TV in Pittsburgh; first-run shows were produced from 1968 to 1976, at which time production was suspended until August 20, 1979. New programs were taped through 2001 for broadcast alongside the original 460 episodes, the most notable coming in 1991 with Rogers' shows focusing on calming children's fears during the Persian Gulf War.
Big Bird appears in episode #1483 entitled "Mister Rogers Talks About Competition," which originally aired on June 3, 1981. In the previous episode, King Friday had announced an art contest for the best painting of the Land of Make Believe. When Henrietta Pussycat gets wind of Big Bird coming to enter the contest, she became jealous of his friendship with her best friend X the Owl. Big Bird arrives the next day with his painting and is welcomed by X's many signs and pictures he has posted for him. He realizes right away that Henrietta is not very welcoming, but assures her that he's just passing through and would never take her best friend.
Handyman Negri leads Big Bird over to King Friday's castle where they are greeted by Lady Elaine. Looking to take advantage in the contest, she tells Big Bird that his painting is too large to be submitted for consideration. The king, however, dismisses this point and welcomes Big Bird into his kingdom. After King Friday invites him into his bubble room, he asks if he's related to the cassowary (a flightless bird). Big Bird replies that he's actually a golden condor and he exits.
Caroll Spinney agreed to appear in the episode as Big Bird after some dialogue with Fred Rogers; when Spinney originally received the script for the show he saw it required him to remove the costume and discuss the inner-workings of the Big Bird puppet. Spinney protested, as he didn't believe in ruining the illusion of Big Bird for the children. Rogers agreed, but only under the stipulation that Big Bird’s appearance was restricted to the fantasy segments of the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe," as he didn’t believe in perpetuating the deceitful blur of real and pretend to children that occurred when presenting the character as real in the "real world."
While Sesame Street Unpaved mentions that Rogers understood Spinney's concern over showing the children how Big Bird works, Spinney said at some of his book signings (promoting his autobiography, The Wisdom of Big Bird) that he and Fred Rogers argued over the phone for roughly twenty minutes over whether or not to have him tell the kids how he performs Big Bird.
In the same episode, Rogers still throws a disguised punch back at Spinney by putting on a tall giraffe costume shortly before Big Bird's appearance, stating to the child viewer "When you see big make-believe creatures in parades or in plays or on television, you can know that the people inside are just pretending to be something else." He adds "Sometimes of course there are machines inside of them too, that make them move. But they're just pretend."