The Man Behind the Feathers
For the past 45 years, Caroll Spinney has taught children important life lessons as one of the most recognizable characters on TV.
But outside of the 8-foot, bright yellow bird suit, you may not know that 81-year-old Spinney is Big Bird, one of the most beloved residents on Sesame Street.
That has likely changed since the documentary “I am Big Bird: the Caroll Spinney Story” was released in May, which has been garnering positive reviews, both from puppets and people
“I am a very fortunate fellow,” he said from his home in Woodstock, Connecticut.
When Spinney was 5-years-old, growing up in Waltham, Massachusetts, he saw his first puppet show about little kittens who lost their mittens and thought to himself, “I want to do that when I grow up.”
“I thought it was a great way to tell a story,” he recalled. “I found a monkey puppet at a rummage sale for a nickel. I put on shows for 2 cents. It was 1942, and a penny could buy four pieces of candy back then.”
Spinney’s mother encouraged his art, helping build sets and costumes for the puppets. His father, on the other hand, didn’t think the arts were a profitable prospect. As a teenager, he started working birthday parties, putting on 15-minute shows and sending kids home with original drawings he would create on the spot.
“I would draw a portrait of them incorporating some features of the child with the animal of their choice,” he said. “I’ve had some of those children come up to me as adults to say they still have their drawing.”
Spinney’s artistic talents served him well in the Air Force. He enlisted during the Korean War and became a draftsman. While stationed in Germany, he created a comic strip, “Harvey”, about military life.
The Air Force also brought him to Las Vegas, which he said was then a “tiny bump in the desert.” There he created a TV puppet show for kids called “Rascal Rabbit.” The show, while short-lived, gave Spinney a taste for what he wanted to do. After the military, he finished art school at the Art Institute of Boston and played various roles on the local children’s shows “The Judy and Goggle Show” and the Boston broadcast of “Bozo’s Big Top.”
Spinney wasn’t making big paychecks on these shows, but he was having too much fun to care.
“I would’ve done it for free,” he said. “The shows gave me courage.”
Meeting Jim Henson
Spinney first met Jim Henson at a small puppet festival in the early 1960s. Spinney performed with a different bird, an early character named “Goggle,” who was a wise-guy.
Impressed, Henson asked Spinney to “come to New York and talk about the Muppets.” But Spinney said he thought it was just an offer to hang out. At the time, Spinney was working on “Bozo’s Big Top,” making $28 a week playing Mr. Lion and couldn’t afford a leisure trip.
It wasn’t until 1969 that Spinney met Henson again when he performed at the Puppeteers of America. Henson again asked for Spinney “to talk about the Muppets,” he said. This time they did, and Spinney joined the inaugural cast of “Sesame Street” playing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch (another famous Muppet).
Henson was, of course, an influence of Spinney’s.
“He was doing stuff nobody else was doing,” he said.
During his 21 years working with Henson, Spinney said one of the biggest lessons he learned from the legendary puppeteer was to be kind.
“He was a very patient man,” Spinney recalled. “The shows would drag once in a while. Once we had a famous actress on the show do her lines 56 times because she couldn’t get it right.”
It was 25 years ago this past May that Spinney put on the feathered suit, adding a tuxedo bib and green bow tie, for Henson’s funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. He was asked to sing “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” In YouTube clips, you can hear Spinney choke back tears as he makes it through the song.
“He was such a good fellow and a good friend,” he said.
The big time
Big Bird is arguably the quintessential symbol of “Sesame Street.” And for 45 years and counting, Spinney has been the heart behind the loveable bird who has taught children to cope with difficult situations and be kind to one another.
Although Big Bird is a creation of Jim Henson, it was Spinney who gave the character heart. Even Henson admitted it. Like Spinney, Big Bird is an avid artist. You can see him in some skits wearing a beret and scarf holding a palette. Spinney would even create the drawings you see on Big Bird’s easel.
“They were rather advanced drawings for a 6-year-old bird,” Spinney said with a laugh.
Playing an 8-foot bird is physically demanding, which is illustrated in “I Am Big Bird.” Yet inside the suit, Spinney has glided on roller skates and ridden a unicycle, all while controlling the arms and mouth of Big Bird. Spinney did this not just for TV shows, but for countless appearances and full-length feature films.
Playing Oscar the Grouch, a Muppet who is the polar opposite of Big Bird and inspired by a New York City cabbie, is very satisfying, Spinney said. Having to juggle the two roles is just one of the reasons why he is not just a puppeteer, but an actor.
“It’s very unusual to play the same character for so long,” he said. “I think it’s kind of neat that parents and grandparents are watching the show with kids, and yet it’s the same guy in the suit.”
But he’s never tired of playing the same roles season after season.
“Not at all…it’s so much fun,” he said.
Impact of Sesame Street
From its inception, “Sesame Street” has sought to educate children while entertaining them. According to Sesameworkshop.org, thousands of studies show that preschoolers who watch the show do significantly better cognitively than those that don’t.
“It’s really had a positive effect on education,” Spinney said.
Over the years, the show has also become a pop culture icon. Celebrities are featured regularly on the show. Spinney recalls Michael Bublé being particularly star struck by Oscar the Grouch and counts Waylon Jennings a friend after filming the full-length feature film, “Follow that Bird.”
While fuzzy red Elmo became a sensation among a new generation of “Sesame Street” viewers, Big Bird sort of took a back seat. That was until 2012 during the presidential debate when Mitt Romney said he would cut what he considered non-essential items in the budget including funding to PBS.
“I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m gonna stop other things,” Romney said. “I like PBS, I love Big Bird…”
That 30-second clip reminded everyone how loved Big Bird is. He was suddenly appearing on late night shows and “Saturday Night Live” poking fun at getting fired by the former governor.
“I was actually flattered,” Spinney said of the Romney’s comments. “It showed that Big Bird is still the symbol of “Sesame Street.” He actually did us a favor, because it proved that people still very much love the show.”
“Sesame Street” re-entered the headlines in August when it was announced that the next five seasons of the show would be shown exclusively on HBO. After nine months, shows will be available for free on PBS.
This has been seen as a win-win for both parties, since HBO has appealing children’s programming, and “Sesame Street” wouldn’t need to evict any Muppets.
Spinney said he sees the deal as a “good shot in the arm.”
“The show has been struggling; we don’t get the money we used to,” he said. “Now, with HBO, there’s a bigger budget to do more elaborate things, and we get 35 episodes instead of 26.”
“I Am Big Bird”
In 2012, three filmmakers approached Spinney about doing a documentary on his life and working on “Sesame Street.” They started a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $120,000 to fund the project.
Combing through archive footage of “Sesame Street”, as well as home videos shot by Spinney and his wife, Debra, the movie provides a closer look at a man who’s been hidden by Muppets for nearly five decades.
“Since the documentary, I’ve been recognized a few times at the airport…but that’s never really bothered me,” Spinney said. “I didn’t need to be known.”
The documentary not only catalogs his success, but follows the love story of Spinney and his second wife, Debra, whom he met in 1979 on the set of “Sesame Street.”
“It’s kind of a love story,” Spinney said. “That’s the best thing that’s ever happened.”
In the film, you also meet Spinney’s understudy, Matt Vogel, who will one day take charge of Big Bird. Vogel, who has worked on “Sesame Street” since 1996, told cameras that he happily gets to do everything Spinney would rather sit out.
Spinney still provides the recognizable high-pitched voice for Big Bird and said he would like to hit the 50-year mark on the show. At 81, he jokes that he’s the “country’s oldest child star.”
“I used to have ideas of retirement, but now I just want to continue doing it until I reach 50 years,” he said. “And do a little more than that if I can.”
Locals will get a chance to get to know Spinney when he comes to speak at WSRE as part of the Public Square Speaker Series.
Spinney’s Sesame Street
Take a YouTube tour of these Muppet highlights.
Big Bird Learns About Death
When Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, died in December 1982, “Sesame Street” decided not to shy away from teaching children an important life lesson on the show. Instead of bringing in a new actor, characters on the show explained to Big Bird in plain and gentle words that death is forever, but so are memories.
“I Love Trash”
The best-known dumpster diver, Oscar the Grouch, regularly sings his praises for discarded items in this classic tune that’s made its way on the show a handful of times. Another fun tune from Oscar is “I Hate Christmas.”
Big Bird sings “Being Green”
It takes a cold heart not to get choked up at Spinney putting on the Big Bird suit for Jim Henson’s memorial service in May of 1990. “Dressed” in a tuxedo bib and green bow tie, Spinney sang one of the signature songs for Kermit the Frog towards the end of the program.
Big Bird in China
After visiting China on a press tour with Bob Hope, Spinney took the idea one step further with the TV-movie “Big Bird in China”, taking the audience on a tour of Chinese landmarks in search of a beautiful phoenix. The successful production was followed up with “Big Bird in Japan.”
Follow that Bird
The first full-length feature to come out of “Sesame Street,” “Follow that Bird” is a comedy musical following Big Bird as he runs away from home. The 1985 movie has cameo appearances from Chevy Chase, John Candy and Waylon Jennings, to name a few.
WSRE PUBLIC SQUARE SPEAKERS SERIES: CAROLL SPINNEY
WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15
WHERE: WSRE Jean & Paul Amos Performance Studio, 1000 College Blvd.