I have sat down to write a tribute about a man whose name is probably not a household name, but it would be hard to find an American household that does not have a Fisher Price toy or a DVD case that does not have a picture of one of his hallmark characters. Caroll Spinney, best known as the performer who brought Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life for nearly 50 years died on Sunday, December 8th 2019. He was 85 years old. No matter how long the obituary or how large the statue, nothing could truly capture Spinney more than a box of DVDs showcasing his life’s work.

The Man

Caroll Spinney was born December 26th, 1933 in Waltham, Massachusetts and was so named “Caroll” because he was born the day after Christmas. He bought a monkey puppet at a yard sale. A couple years later, his mom bought him a Punch and Judy puppet theater for Christmas. Thus, the foundation of a life time as a puppet performer was set!

Spinney was equally talented as an artist. While in the Air Force, he drew and wrote a comic strip under the pen name “Ed Spinney.” Later, he created a cartoon under the same name. Sesame Street (1969) viewers would later see a sample of his artwork in most episodes of the show. Spinney drew the caricature of Mr. Hooper that Big Bird drew and wanted to give him during the heartbreaking episode that helped teach young viewers how to process the death of a loved one (Episode 1839), Sesame Street’s response to the real life death of Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper.

During the days of local children’s television, Spinney made a name for himself as a puppeteer and performer. In 1955, Spinney moved to Nevada where he created the show Rascal Rabbit. Later, he returned to Massachusetts to appear in the show The Judy and Goggle Show (1958) with Judy Valentine. Once that show’s limited run finished, Valentine and Spinney joined Boston’s broadcast of Bozo’s Big Top (1966).

It was also during the 1960s that Spinney developed two puppet cats, Picklepuss and Pop. Spinney would perform the duo in different stage shows and even on Bozo’s Circus. Picklepuss and Pop would eventually blend into the Muppet family with just one appearance in the video Wow, You’re a Cartoonist! (1988).

Jim Henson was impressed with Spinney’s ambitious experimental presentation that was hosted by Picklepuss and combined live-puppetry techniques with film projection. Although the presentation was riddled with technical problems, Henson approached Spinney and eventually recruited him.

In 2015, Spinney stopped puppeteering Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch due to physical limitations from Dystonia, but continued to provide their voices. He fully retired in 2018 after recording his last performance as part of the 50th season of Sesame Street (2019). His understudies, Matt Vogel (Big Bird) and Eric Jacobson (Oscar the Grouch) completely took over the roles.

The Bird and the Grouch

When I was little, Sesame Street (1969) seemed to revolve around Big Bird. Of course, it is an ensemble show, but, much like it seemed to rely on the popularity of Elmo (shudders) during the late 90s and early 00s, the 80s were all about Big Bird. As much as I love Bert and Ernie, Telly Monster, Grover, and Cookie Monster, when I think of Sesame Street (1969), my first thought is of Big Bird.

As a puppet, Big Bird is extraordinary. Big Bird is part puppet and part costume. Big Bird’s legs are like pants that go over the puppeteer’s legs and the top half of Big Bird covers the chest and head of the puppeteer. The puppeteer’s head is positioned in Big Bird’s chest and his hand manipulates Big Bird’s mouth. His other hand and arm are inside one of Big Bird’s arm and hand. Meanwhile, Big Bird’s other hand is stuffed and attached with a thin string like a fishing line. A pulley system allows the stuffed hand to move up and down to complete the illusion.

The most brilliant part of the puppet are his eyes. Big Bird’s pupils contain a tiny camera that feeds into a monitor strapped on the puppeteer’s neck and hidden by the puppet/costume. Want to know a secret? Sometimes a live feed is not possible due to a live appearance or a filming location. For these instances a hole is in the costume in the puppeteer’s eye line and hidden by a necktie.

Logistics aside, Spinney’s performance was the heart of what made Big Bird so special. When the show premiered in 1969, Big Bird looked slightly different and acted dopey and goofy. He transitioned to a 4 year old to match Sesame Street’s (1969) target audience. Then, he became a perpetual 6 year old and has held there since.

Somehow, with the subtle tilt to his head or a nervous stutter added to his falsetto childlike voice, Spinney added a depth to a giant, flightless yellow bird who could roller skate and even ride a unicycle! He connected with the human characters and played off his Muppet counterparts to the point you forgot Maria (Sonia Manzano) was talking to a puppet and were tricked into thinking she was consoling a 6 year old.

Spinney’s other trademark character, Oscar the Grouch, was a great yin to Big Bird’s yang. His grumpy exclamation of, “Scram!” kept Sesame Street from being too sweet. Although he called Big Bird “a giant turkey” or Maria “skinny,” down deep even Oscar has a bit of kindness, even if he hates it. He is unkempt, lives in a trash can, and sings of his love of trash. He teaches children how to get along and accept people that are different, even a bit grumpy at times without being preachy and obvious. He also provides some comedic moments to the show.

Puppet-wise, Oscar is fairly straight forward, but Spinney created another large, walking puppet named Bruno the Trashman who would sometimes carry Oscar and his trashcan home around. Bruno usually was the strong silent type. Spinney would wear the puppet and control Oscar through a hole in the front of the costume obscured by Oscar’s trashcan. Bruno allowed a way for Oscar to move around believably to different locations on the set, but the character was retired when the puppet eventually deteriorated and it was deemed too expensive to rebuild.

During his career, Caroll Spinney earned 2 Gold Records, 4 Daytime Emmy Awards, 2 Grammy Awards, (as Big Bird) a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the Library of Congress Living Legend Award. He entertained, taught, and befriended countless generations of children. He without a doubt made our world a little better during his time with us.

Key Big Bird Performances to Revisit and Celebrate Caroll Spinney

I watch this every year and it does not get old one bit! This is Sesame Street at its finest! Oscar the Grouch tells Big Bird that no one will get Christmas presents if Santa Claus cannot fit down the chimney. Big Bird tries to figure out how Santa does it while Bert and Ernie sacrifice their favorite possessions to get each other the perfect Christmas gift and Cookie Monster tries to write Santa a letter asking for cookies. Plus, Sesame Street Muppets ice skate!

Big Bird is sent away to live with a bird family by Miss Finch, a social worker. He runs away to try to get back home to his friends and nest on Sesame Street. The Sesame Street gang heads out to find him before Miss Finch does. This is Sesame Street’s (1969) big screen debut full of fun cameos and songs.

Be prepared. This is a celebration of Jim Henson’s life, but have a box of tissues handy, especially if you are like me and still struggling not to cry over the passing of Caroll Spinney. There were two different memorial services, one in New York and one in London. The New York memorial service has made its way onto YouTube. Among the many songs, stories, and readings is Big Bird singing “Bein’ Green.” During the song, Spinney is clearly choked up.

This documentary is truly a gift. We see the man behind the Bird and the Grouch, hear stories about his career, footage of rare glimpses behind the scenes of Sesame Street, and stories about Jim Henson. This is a must-see for any Muppet fan.

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