One of the most famous streets in the world is about to wave goodbye to a long-standing resident.
Puppeteer Caroll Spinney is stepping out of Big Bird’s shoes – or should that be feet – at the age of 84, after half a century of work on Sesame Street.
Spinney joined the show when it started in 1969 and turned what was supposed to be a supporting character into a big yellow icon. For Spinney, the secret lay in following his instincts.
In a 2015 piece for The Guardian, he said that “(Muppet creator) Jim Henson, who developed the characters, said to play him like a goofy yokel from the country. But it felt more natural to me to play him as a child, like a big kid.”
Oscar the Grouch, Spinney’s other defining role, was more of a challenge. The trashcan-dwelling creation could have frightened children.
Yet as Sesame Street co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney remarks in a press release, “the sheer artistry of Caroll is that he also brought Oscar to life and made him the most lovable Grouch in the world.”
Born in 1933 in Waltham, Massachusetts, Spinney’s first performance was with a monkey puppet when he was just 8.
“I made 32 cents with my first show,” he told The Guardian, “which I thought was pretty good, and that’s when I knew I would be a puppeteer when I grew up.”
In 1962 the path of his life altered when he met Jim Henson at a festival.
Together with Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, Henson brought Spinney onboard for the Sesame Street project.
He never left and met wife Debra on those fake pavements in 1973.
Over the decades Big Bird evolved into a fully-fledged feathery celebrity.
The Sesame Workshop press release chronicles some of his achievements, saying that “He’s been feted with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, celebrated with his likeness on a U.S. postage stamp, and named a “Living Legend” in 2000 by the Library of Congress.”
Spinney has also revealed a strange political connection in the form of former President Barack Obama.
As mentioned to The Guardian, “I found out Barack is my ninth cousin twice removed, although I’ve never met him… Michelle (Obama) told me that when her daughters found out they were related to Big Bird, they squealed and danced around the kitchen.”
As well as getting his own movie in 1985 (Follow That Bird), a documentary about Spinney titled I Am Big Bird was produced in 2014.
The mid-Eighties saw Spinney approached for what could have been Big Bird’s strangest adventure.
NASA had an idea to launch him into orbit in full costume, in an attempt to educate kids about space.
It wasn’t the most practical of suggestions. Describing the process of “wearing” the Big Bird puppet to The Guardian, Spinney said that “my right arm is his neck, and my right-hand moves his head, with my little finger controlling his eyebrows, moving them up and down to show when he’s thinking.
I can change his expression by tilting his head toward the camera at a different angle. My left hand is in the left wing, which is linked to the right wing with fishing wire. I can’t see anything outside the suit when I’m in it, so I wear a little monitor strapped to my chest”.
Bizarre though it sounds, there was a tragic end to the mission. Spinney didn’t go, but watched as what turned out to be the Challenger disaster happened before his eyes.
Read another story from us: Big Bird was on the shortlist for the Space Shuttle but didn’t make the cut–fortunately, as it turned out
Spinney plans to continue his association with Sesame Street via the Sesame Workshop, a non-profit organization that used to called the Children’s Television Workshop. The roles of Big Bird and Oscar will be taken by Matt Vogel and Eric Jacobson respectively.