In Memory: 10 Things About Caroll Spinney, the Master Puppeteer Behind Big Bird
Caroll Spinney, the legendary puppeteer behind beloved Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, sadly passed on December 8th 2019, at age 85 at his home in Connecticut, after living with Dystonia (a muscular disorder that causes muscles to contract involuntarily) for some time.
In memory of one of the most celebrated puppeteers in the world, here are 10 interesting things about Mr. Caroll Spinney.
1. Spinney voiced and operated Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch from their inception in 1969 when he was 36, and performed them almost exclusively into his 80s over a span of 5 decades.
2. Spinney’s honors include: 6 Daytime Emmys, 2 Grammys, a Library of Congress Living Legend Award in 2000, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Academy of Television Arts and Science and 2006.
3. Caroll Edwin Spinney was born in Waltham, Massachusetts, on December 26, 1933. His mother named him Caroll because he was born the day after Christmas. From an early age, his mother encouraged his interest in drawing, painting and puppetry; and bought him his first puppet, a monkey, at age 8. She even built him a puppet stage to perform for the neighborhood children. By age 12, he had 70 puppets, many made by his mother.
4. In 1969, Spinney performed at a Puppeteers of America festival in Utah. His show was a mixture of live actors and puppets but was ruined by an errant spotlight that washed out the animated backgrounds. Jim Henson was in attendance and came backstage after the show and told Spinney: “I liked what you were trying to do,” and asked if they could “talk about the Muppets”. Spinney joined the Muppeteers full-time by late 1969 and the rest was history.
5. Spinney said he was originally asked to play Big Bird as “a funny, dumb country yokel.” After a few episodes, Spinney made a suggestion to the show’s producers. “I said, I think I should play him like he’s a child, a surrogate,” he recalled. “He can be all the things that children are. He can learn with the kids.” That had a lasting effect on Big Bird and on “Sesame Street,” where the character came to embody the tender, nurturing soul of the show.
6. Being Big Bird was physically demanding and full of challenges. In the diagrams above you can get a sense of what it was like inside. In the embedded video below from the documentary, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, you can truly appreciate the skill of the master puppeteer.
7. In 1990 at age 53, Jim Henson died suddenly, leaving the Muppet world devastated. At the funeral, Spinney appeared alone on stage in full Big Bird costume and sang “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green,” Kermit’s signature song. Spinney said he was crying under the feathers but he got through the song, looking at the sky and saying, “Thank you Kermit,” before walking off.
8. Big Bird was usually used for comedy, but his innocence and questioning was also useful when serious subjects needed addressing. When “Sesame Street” shopkeeper Mr. Hooper died, Big Bird had to get a lesson in accepting death, saying in the memorable 1983 episode that “he’s gotta come back. Who’s gonna take care of the store? Who’s gonna make my birdseed milkshakes, and tell me stories?”
9. In 2015, Spinney switched to just providing the characters’ voices. As the physical requirements of performing his characters became difficult for him, in particular a problem with balance. Matt Vogel, who had been Mr. Spinney’s apprentice as Big Bird since 1996, succeeded him in that role and continues to keep Spinney’s spirit in the character to this day.
10. “Playing Big Bird is one of the most joyous things of my life,” – Spinney reflected in an interview. If you want to learn more about his life you can check out the documentary, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
You will be missed Mr. Caroll Spinney