Caroll Spinney, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for 34 years, has written a book:
- The 156-page book (Villard, $16.95) is for adults, not children, but Spinney figures most of his readers will have grown up with Sesame Street, or have children who watch it.
At 69, he says he doesn’t mind being unknown and famous. He recalls when a local newspaper published his address and his home became something of a tourist attraction.
”One guy pulled up, honked his horn and yelled, ‘Hey, you the bird? Do the voice!’ ”
Spinney says he felt like telling him, ” ‘I’m also Oscar the Grouch. So get the hell out of here!’ Of course, even Oscar couldn’t say that. So I just said, ‘Please go away.’ ”
….His break came in 1969, when Jim Henson, of Muppets fame, saw Spinney perform at a puppetry festival in Salt Lake City. He invited him to join an experimental show called Sesame Street, designed to prove that TV can teach children to read and write.
Henson and Frank Oz had created Bert and Ernie but were too busy to spend every day at a TV studio. The set resembled a city street, and they decided they needed more fantasy. Henson thought up two characters that one person could perform — a large bird and a grouch.
Part of the job of being Big Bird is looking the part. Kermit Love, who originally built Big Bird, used to insist, ”It’s not a costume, it’s a puppet.” Spinney says it’s ”actually a brilliant combination of the two.”
Big Bird is 8 feet tall, 2 feet taller than Spinney. He holds up his right arm inside the bird’s neck. The bird’s head is in Spinney’s hand. Spinney controls the bird’s eyelids and mouth. His left arm operates the bird’s left wing and, with a piece of monofilament, his right wing.
Strapped to Spinney’s chest is a small TV receiver and wireless (news – web sites) microphone. The TV lets Spinney see ”the same third-person image that the TV cameras see, not the first-person view that we’re all used to seeing to move around.”
….Spinney sees Oscar, with the voice of a cabdriver from the Bronx, as a ”paradox.” ”He gets so much enjoyment out of being miserable,” but ”he’s fundamentally got a heart of gold.”
Spinney was 5 when he saw his first puppet and was captivated by the idea that ”a whole show could be done with little things on your hands.” Three years later at a rummage sale, he bought his first puppet, a monkey with a hole in its head, for a nickel. Soon he was putting on shows for a 2-cent admission. His first show drew 16 people and in 1942, he notes, 32 cents was enough to go to the movies three times.
Life hasn’t always been easy. When Spinney quit Boston TV to work on Sesame Street, he took a pay cut and had trouble making ends meet in New York. He almost quit after the first season and writes, ”Sometimes you don’t recognize what you have is what you always wanted.”
….He says he has no plans to retire. ”I’ll do it as long as I can hold up the bird’s head (which weighs 4 pounds). I’d love to be doing it 10 years from now. . . . There’s nothing like a job that lasts.” [USA Today]
I dig the Bird, but I like the Grouch even better.