The Bird Was the Word

Caroll Spinney died on Sunday
You might not recognise the name, but you will certainly recognise his alter-egos:
An eight-foot-tall, bright yellow bird, and a green, furry Grouch who lived in a trash can.
Caroll was the pupeteer behind two of Sesame Street’s first, and most iconic characters – Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
Named “Caroll” by his mum, because he was born on Boxing Day 1933, Spinney first met Jim Henson at a puppeting festival in 1962.
They met again at the next festival, but due to a technical hitch with the lighting his performance did not go according to plan and Caroll was very dissappointed, but Henson saw potential and asked if he would like to “talk about the Muppets“.
Spinney joined the puppeting cast of Sesame Street for their first season in 1969 and  officially retired after voicing a few pieces earlier this year after being part of Sesame Street for FIFTY YEARS!
While still “Big”, Big Bird’s head was not so full-some of feathers in the first season and Oscar the Grouch was actually orange, not green! These features would change soon afterwards.

Launched in 1969 by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett one of the things that made so many people love Sesame Street has been its cast centrally featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets, puppets and Monsters.

Often zany and silly but never condescending to its young audience, Sesame Street has become the inspiration and benchmark by which many people judge not only children’s television, but all television since.

While teaching pre-school basics like the alphabet, counting, colours and opposites, it also deals with making friends, manners, feelings and other important social and personal issues.

Spinney’s Big Bird acted as the viewers conduit into the world of Sesame Street – While 8′ tall and feathered he still had the eyes, inquisitiveness and wonderment of a child – the show’s target audience.

Big Bird was often the one dealing with big issues – One particular Sesame Street piece has burned itself into my memory (have a box of tissues handy):

When Will Lee, who played shopkeeper “Mr Hooper” (“Hooper’s Store” still bears his name as a memorial) died in 1982, rather than recasting the role, or saying Hooper moved away or retired, Sesame Street’s producers decided to deal with the issue head-on and created an episode that taught their young audience about the difficult topic of death in an honest and straightforward way.

I would have been five when the episode originally aired and some of my earliest memories are of going to the funerals of elderly grandparents and relatives, while not fully understanding what was going on.

That episode made things much clearer and easier to understand.

I cried watching it.

I still cry watching it today.

I wasn’t the only one – Legend has it the piece was shot in one take and there wasn’t a dry eye in the entire studio, in front of or behind the cameras, once it was done.

The antithesis to Big Bird’s wide-eyed Pollyanna, was Oscar the Grouch.

Always grumpy, curmudgeony and liking the opposite of everything everyone else on Sesame Street liked, it was fitting that Spinney played him, too – the tragedy to the comedy, the cloud to every silver lining.

But what Oscar did was show it was OK to be different – everyone accepted him, despite his grouchyness.

One of the first gifts my now wife got for me when we started dating was Spinney’s book The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons from a Life in Feathers. I read the entire book the night she gave it to me.

Jim Henson’s work and his creations blossomed from Sesame Street, as did the world’s love for them.

When Henson died in 1990, leaving behind a legacy of Muppets, movies, Fraggles, Sesame Street and many other beloved shows all his creations got together for one last show called “The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson”.

Whilst the special centred around Henson’s other most well-known creation – “The Muppet Show” for the finale – a song called “Just One Person” almost all his creations appeared to sing a gorgeous eulogy to the great man, the amazing talent from where they came.

I cried watching that too, because being an only child, television had been one of my biggest inspirations and windows on the world before I started school.

The Muppets, Fraggles and Sesame Street characters had become more than just puppets to me – they were MY FRIENDS.

I saw what Henson  and his Muppeteers could do on multiple levels – Not just cute, fluffy, talking toys, but almost sentient beings with a drive behind them – to teach, to care, to love.

I believed in them.

I saw myself in Big Bird, too – I was that same tall, gangly, wide-eyed kid with that same enthusiasm and inquisitiveness for everything, always asking questions – albeit thousands of miles away from a street in New York.

Like me, he was taller than everyone else, but they accepted him for who he was, and he accepted them.

In a roundabout way it made utter sense that Spinney, as Big Bird, sang “(It’s Not Easy) Bein’ Green” at Henson’s memorial service:

I never had the Bird’s penchant for rollerskating, though.

This feat was made ever more impressive / crazy, by the fact that Spinney COULDN’T SEE OUT OF THE BIG BIRD COSTUME!

Image result for big bird rollerskating gif

While he had one hand stuck straight up in the air to operate the bird’s head, mouth and eyes, Spinney got his vision from a small TV monitor strapped to his chest and got his references from the TV cameras viewing him’s perspective – working blind and/or backwards effectively!

Image result for big bird suit.

Big Bird almost didn’t make it to Sesame Street’s 50th season – He was initially meant to be on the disasterous 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle mission!
NASA had been in talks with Sesame Street to have Spinney record some segments on board the shuttle to teach children about space, but the costume’s sheer bulk in the small confines of the space ship inevitably, and fortunately, saw the idea canned.
Big Bird and Oscar will, naturally, continue to exist on Sesame Street, played by Matt Vogel and Eric Jacobson respectively (Vogel was Spinney’s understudy for the bird for almost 20 years!), but today is a sad day for generations of youngsters-at-heart around the world who grew up with Big Bird and Oscar, as another original member of The Muppets passes on.
Thank you Caroll.
You taught me it was OK to be tall and different, and inquisitive. But it was also important to be kind and caring. 
And that it was OK to be grumpy, and cantankerous sometimes, too.
I hope I can live my life to the standards your feathered and furry personas set.
AF

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