Remembering Big Bird’s Caroll Spinney

spinneySad to hear about the death at 85 of Caroll Spinney, a puppeteer who gave joy to generations of kids who may have never heard his name. But they sure heard of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch too, both of whom Spinney gave life (and voice) to for 40 years.

News of his death came hours before the rest of “Sesame Street” was to receive the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. Sunday.

Spinney had retired from his puppeteering roles only last year.

“Before I came to ‘Sesame Street,’ I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important,” he said upon retirement. “Big Bird helped me find my purpose.”

Unlike, say, Barney the Dinosaur, Big Bird is more than just a costume; he’s a full-fledged puppet. Spinney’s right arm ran up the bird’s neck, and his hand held up his head. His little finger operated a lever that controls the eyelids of the expressive bird; the thumb ran the lower jaw to make him speak. His left hand, meanwhile, operated the bird’s left wing; the right wing following along through a line of monofilament.

Spinney could scarcely see out of the bird, so he had a tiny closed-circuit TV set inside to indicate where he was. It was affixed on a harness on his chest, next to his carefully folded script and a wireless microphone.

It was even more complicated when he was on tour. Minus the TV set, he’s bonked the towering head and tripped over unseen stage props.

“I have fallen off more than one stage,” he told me in 2003.

And he’s been on a lot of stages in his Big Bird role, conducting symphony orchestras, traveling to China with Bob Hope and performing more than once in the White House.

Spinney lived for decades in Eastern Connecticut and I had occasion to interview him for the Hartford Courant, a local celebrity who nobody recognized outside of the yellow feathers. And he liked it that way, preferring to preserve the magic.

“Often, people come up to you with their kids and say, ‘Do you know who this man is? There’s a man inside of Big Bird, and this is the man,”’ Spinney said. “The kids look like it’s the worst news they’ve heard in a long time.”

Spinney grew up in Acton, Mass., and put on his first puppet show at age 7. It starred a rubber-headed monkey hand puppet he got secondhand for a nickel and a length of green flannel that was fashioned into a snake.

He made money putting on puppet shows in school and first got into TV while stationed in the Air Force in Las Vegas. Back in Boston, he got a job on “Bozo’s Big Top,” playing characters from Grandma Nellie to the ringmaster Mr. Lion and Kookie the boxing kangaroo (forever KO’d by willing kids).

He met Jim Henson already a rising star in puppetry, at a festival in Salt Lake City and soon was signed to his new “Sesame Street” venture to play two of its more fanciful characters — including the oversized bird.

“At first, he had no age; he was just a goofy guy,” Spinney said of Big Bird’s first persona. “Then we decided he’d be a 4 1/2-year-old child learning, just like the kids watching.

“Then, as he was learning to draw and write, and talking so well now, we thought minimally he should be 6. He’s not acting like a 4-year-old, and he never had to be 7.”

Throughout his 40 years on “Sesame Street,” Spinney balanced his role as the sunny, optimistic and helpful Big Bird with playing the far more dark, cynical, trash-can-dwelling Oscar the Grouch.

“I’ve enjoyed the contrast of the characters,” Spinney said of Oscar, whose voice he appropriated from a Bronx cabdriver. “Only once or twice, I’ve opened a character’s mouth, and the wrong voice has come out.”

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