Puppeteer behind Big Bird, Oscar cherishes anonymity (1991)

[Original] Editor’s Note — For a performer who spends so much time in front of a camera, Caroll Spinney cherishes anonymity. He doesn’t want to confuse a bunch of kids. Spinney’s performing, you see, is in the guise of Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch and he figures they are the real stars of the show, not him.

big bird sesame street sign

By Judie Glave

Caroll Spinney for years has played one of television’s most popular characters, but most people have never heard of him.

That doesn’t bother Spinney. “I love it,” he says convincingly.

Caroll who? Try Big Bird, Spinney’s alter ego.

Spinney is the puppeteer who was hand-picked by the late Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, to play Sesame Street’s lovable, resident mensch Big Bird and the irascible Oscar the Grouch. He decided early on that the bird, not the man, was going to be the star.

For years, Spinney refused to be photographed at all and he still bans shots showing him getting into or out of costume. “It’s a delicate situation because the children think of him as a real bird,” he says. “That’s something we hadn’t planned on.”

Spinney, 57, early on turned down chances to do the talk show circuit with Oscar. Showing the puppeteer as well as the puppet would have increased his fame and padded his checkbook, “but I would have lost something, too,” Spinney says.

Oscar the Grouch and Caroll Spinney. Image courtesy Copper Pot Pictures

Like the wonder in children’s faces when they look at Bird (his nickname, for the uninitiated), the love packed inside letters that come from around the world, the anonymity to pull off the occasional bodacious prank.

Once the unfeathered Spinney was in a department store when he spotted a mother and daughter looking at talking Big Bird dolls. Hearing the child’s name, Spinney crouched down and said in Big Bird’s familiar falsetto:

“Hello, Elizabeth. Gee, that’s a pretty red dress. It’s snowing out, isn’t it?”

The mother was dumbfounded, wondering how the doll knew the name, the dress color and the weather, Spinney says. But the woman, daughter in tow, just turned and walked away.

“You mean after all that you’re not even going to buy the thing!” he yelled after her. Spinney never did tell the woman who he was. And, looking at him, she would never have guessed.

Lean and wiry, with a thatch of white hair, cropped beard and trim mustache, Spinney is considerably shorter at 5-feet-10 than Big Bird, who stands 8-feet-2 from tip to toe. He bears a striking resemblance to his mentor, Henson [seen with him below].

With Jim Henson from I Am Big Bird The Caroll Spinney Story

His normal voice is discernibly lower than Big Bird’s and infinitely more cultured than Oscar’s.

He lives with his second wife, Debra, on several wooded acres in northeast Connecticut. He won’t say where “only because I’ve actually had people drive info the yard, blow the horn and say, ‘Do the voice.’

“Yeah, get outta heeeeeere,” he says, slipping into Oscar. Spinney spends part of his free time making tapes for Big Bird toys and doing voice-overs for Bird appearances in Ice Capade-type road shows, which he refuses to see. “As a puppeteer it goes against everything I do,” he says. “The Big Bird in the show moves like Godzilla.”

Not so with his own feathered garb, which is half costume and half puppet. Big Bird’s head — all 4-1/22 pounds worth — is actually Spinney’s right arm held “as straight as possible” over his head. He monitors Big Bird’s movements via a 1-1/2-inch television set strapped to his chest.

>> Swinging Sesame Street debuts (1969)

Spinney was bitten by the puppeteering bug as a youngster. Along with his mother, he credits, of all people, F Lee Bailey’s mom.

She ran a day care school in their hometown of Acton, Mass. It was there that Spinney, a childhood playmate of the noted trial lawyer, saw his first puppet production.

He made his debut at age 8 in the family barn with a homemade monkey and snake, earning the princely sum of 36 cents. Spinney put himself through art school doing birthday parties and lodge shows, all the while planning a career drawing comic strips or books.

“I didn’t know that puppets would take over,” he says. In 1960, while still in school, he landed a job on the “Judy and Goggle” puppet show, a summer replacement series at a local television station in Boston. His next stint was a 9-year run on the local “Bozo the Clown” show.

In 1969, Henson was scouting for someone to play Big Bird. He showed up at Spinney’s outdoor, animated light show and a friendship was born.

Henson died just over a year ago of aggravated pneumonia. “There’s a vacuum there that is just never going to be filled,” Spinney says.

Big Bird originally played “the village idiot on the show,” because when Spinney asked Henson what kind of character he was, the Muppet maker described him as a Goofy-like sidekick.

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