Puppeteer Caroll Spinney is interviewed during a break from taping an episode of Sesame Street on Thursday, April 10, 2008 in New York.
In a brown velvet jacket, with wire-framed glasses and a head of white hair, Caroll Spinney pulled a green furry puppet from behind the podium.
“They’re looking at me?” Oscar the Grouch says in a mean voice as he’s introduced to the crowd.
“Who you looking at?” The crowd laughs. “Oh, you think it’s funny, huh?”
“Oscar, you’re not going to become pugnacious, are you?” Spinney asks.
“What’s that mean?” Oscar says. “We don’t use that word on Sesame Street.”
Spinney, the puppeteer famous for playing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on the classic children’s television show Sesame Street, spoke to a small audience Wednesday at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign about his life experiences and the wisdom he has gleaned over the years.
Born in December 1933 in the midst of the Depression, Spinney came from humble beginnings. His father made $12 a week, and only two rooms in his house were heated. Water would freeze solid beside him at night.
“We had no money,” he said. “But it didn’t seem like we had a hard time.”
Spinney first took an interest in puppets when he was five. After buying his first puppet at a rummage sale, he built a puppet theater and charged two cents for his first show, which earned him big money in 1942, he said.
“Sixteen people came, so I was rich,” he said. “You could go to the movies three times on 32 cents.”
People went away from that first show smiling, Spinney said.
“I can’t imagine what I did for 20 minutes with just a monkey puppet, which was so loose it wobbled all around my hand,” he said. “I soon became known for my puppets.”
Spinney put himself through art school, unsure of whether he wanted to be an illustrator and cartoonist or puppeteer — so he did his best at both of them to see which one would win.
“Puppeteering is more fun if you can make it than the drawing only because you can hear the laughter,” he said.
Spinney worked as Mr. Lion on the show Bozo’s Big Top for 10 years before he decided he wanted to do something more worthwhile for the world and for himself. After meeting Jim Henson at a puppet festival, Spinney got the opportunity he was looking for in the roles of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
“Jim really opened the door finally to what I really think I should be doing, working on Sesame Street,” he said.
At first, Spinney was disappointed with Big Bird’s appearance and character. He was told Big Bird should sound like Goofy and talk like an unintelligent man. But after a while, Spinney decided the show would be more relatable for children if Big Bird was a child just like them, and Big Bird became six-years-old instead.
“What good is a big goofy guy hanging around your kids?” he said. “But if he’s a child, he could be learning along with the kids at home. He became the surrogate child of Sesame Street.”
Spinney said he is most proud of an episode where Big Bird dealt with death, a topic that every child will deal with but that few understand. Spinney came to realize that Big Bird could help teach young children how they should be, and he wanted compassion to be a larger part of the show.
“I though that the world could use more compassion,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could start teaching that too, along with the simple arithmetic we do and the alphabet?”
As he was trying to figure out how to incorporate compassion into the show, Spinney realized after reading a newspaper article that it had gotten into the show without him really trying.
“Somehow, I was doing what I hoped I would transmit,” he said. “I was very delighted that I must be doing the right thing.”
Sesame Street has given Spinney the chance to make an impact on children’s lives. He receives a lot of mail, with children writing him things like, “Dear Big Bird, you’re my friend. Why don’t you come and stay with me? I just got bunk beds. You can have the top.”
In one instance, Spinney received a letter from two parents asking him to call their cancer-ridden 5-year-old son who only perked up when Big Bird was on TV.
Spinney later learned that after talking to him on the phone for a few minutes as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, the boy closed his eyes and said, “Big Bird called me. He’s my friend.” Those were the last words he spoke.
“I couldn’t save his life, but to think that he could die with a smile must be better than what was happening,” Spinney said, eyes full of tears.
Muni Ogbara, a freshman at the University of Illinois, said she watched the show as a kid and saw a different side of the Sesame Street characters after hearing Spinney speak.
“It was really interesting to hear about his life instead of seeing him on screen as Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch,” she said. “I never really think about the person behind the costume.”
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