Still Alive: Caroll Spinney
Too often we wait until someone has died to honor them. That seems foolish to us. We want to talk about the great, badass people walking the planet now - while they're still alive.
If Caroll Spinney walked down the street most people wouldn’t recognize him. A tall, 78 year old man with a silver bob and a Van Dyke, Spinney has a warm smile but there’s nothing about him that draws attention to his claim to true cultural immortality. Caroll Spinney is Big Bird.
He’s been Big Bird since the iconic Muppet’s debut in 1969. Spinney is also the human behind Oscar the Grouch; between these two characters he has undoubtedly touched, moved and educated millions of children over three generations.
Spinney was born the day after Christmas 1933 in the Boston area. He was always artistically inclined; while serving in the Air Force he wrote and drew a satirical comic strip called Harvey (under the pen name Ed Spinney). After his time in the service he animated cartoons, worked on kids’ shows and took a huge interest in puppetry. It was at a puppeteering festival that Spinney first met Jim Henson in 1962; Henson told Spinney he liked what he was doing and they should ‘have a talk’ about the Muppets. Spinney never followed up.
Spinney played Mr. Lion on the Boston area version of the Bozo show throughout the 60s, and then he bumped into Henson again in 1969. This time they had that talk about the Muppets.
The Big Bird costume had no eye holes for the performer. A television was rigged inside the Muppet’s chest so that Spinney could see where he was going. The crew called it ‘the electronic bra.’ When Big Bird has to appear live a costume with eye holes is used; the holes are hidden behind a tie. And Big Bird makes a lot of live appearances: Spinney has entertained children on four continents in costume. He’s also conducted the Boston Pops as Big Bird and visited the White House on multiple occasions. There’s no record of whether he helped George W. Bush with his reading.
Oscar and Big Bird have been integral components of Sesame Street since the first episode. Originally the Muppets were going to be segmented away from the main live-action business of the show, but Henson wanted to integrate everything, and a giant yellow bird and a man living in a trash can were his initial ideas. Oscar was actually orange in his first appearances, and in the early days he had a friend named Bruno the Trash Man who would carry him around. Bruno was actually a full-body puppet worn by Spinney that allowed him to manipulate Oscar while being mobile.
Over the years Spinney has won awards - Emmys, Grammys and the Library of Congress’ Living Legend Award. There’s a documentary in production about him right now.
I met Spinney earlier this year at the Monsterpalooza convention. He figured that Oscar was a monster, and so he belonged there. He had an unassuming table near the back of the autograph alley and his wife, Debra, handled all the business while Spinney’s hands danced across paper, creating personalized sketches for awestruck fans.
Debra showed off Spinney’s artwork; he paints watercolors all the time, many of them involving the characters he has made famous. Some of them are sweet, some of them are trippy, a couple are risque and odd (one picture of Big Bird eating a chicken was straight up disturbing). Every year Spinney paints a Christmas card for friends and relatives, and Debra had dozens of those to show off as well.
We bought a unique sketch and a painting - how could you not? Spinney himself was genial and his artwork was strong. Many 78 year olds have a hard time holding their hands straight, but Spinney was able to dash off wonderful sketches for eight hours a day.
What was most wonderful was seeing how Spinney dealt with his fans. People were almost in tears meeting him - this man had been such a central part of so many lives over the years - and he was kind and sweet and didn’t make a big deal out of it. He wasn’t basking in the adulation, he was reflecting the love back to the fans.
That’s what makes meeting Caroll Spinney - or any of the Muppeteers - so special. These people aren’t in it for fame. Their faces are never seen on screen, their real voices never heard. They have a genuine love about them and they want to entertain and teach and connect with young people in a meaningful way.
Before Elmo Big Bird was the most popular Sesame Street Muppet, and it’s because he was the Muppet that the kids in the audience understood. He was the character standing in for them - curious, innocent, wanting to be loved and having so much love to give to everyone around him. Big Bird is an eternal kid, wide-eyed and excited to learn and discover new things. For over 40 years Carol Spinney has been in that costume, a constant center of decency and sweetness in an ever-coarsening world.
Caroll Spinney is Stil Alive - let’s appreciate him now.
Here's a link to Spinney's official website, which includes some more examples of his art. If he is appearing at a convention near you I urge you to get out and see him. The art he sells at conventions is much, much cheaper than the art that he sells through galleries - and nothing will ever beat a personalized, unique sketch from the wings of Big Bird himself.