Caroll Spinney died on Sunday. Do you know the name? Most people probably don’t. But most people DO know who Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are. And if you know then, then you knew Caroll.
I never met Caroll Spinney. I know people who have. And they all have nothing but lovely things to say about him. I have my own non-face-to-face story, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
I grew up with Caroll Spinney. I was 3 years old when Sesame Street premiered. I can remember it airing twice a day on our local PBS station and I usually watched it twice. Big Bird was a friend to us all, but Oscar, he was the grouch for me.
I am so old that I can remember when Oscar was orange. When I used to say that people wouldn’t believe me. But I had the Sesame Street record album to prove it. And on page 52 of his wonderful treasure of a book Caroll confirms it. ‘…and I finally met the Grouch when Don pulled him out of an overnight bag. Instead of being purple, as Jim had described the puppet to me, he was dark orange.” (Jim, of course being Jim Henson and Don being Don Sahlin, who designed and built many muppets). Oscar was (and is) grouchy, but lovable. Caroll made him that way. He could have been a “bad guy” or totally unlikable but he wasn’t (and isn’t). That’s because of Caroll. Who else could have successfully pulled off the song “I Love Trash?” (A song of which I haven’t heard in at least a decade, but I can immediately and easily sing out the lyrics…”anything dirty or dingy or dusty. Anything ragged or rotten or rusty…Oh I love trash.”)
In the early part of this century, Caroll wrote a book: The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar The Grouch.) It’s part memoir, part life lesson and ALL good. But don’t take my word for it; go out and find it and read it!
In late 2003 or early 2004, I wrote Caroll. At the time my husband and I were trying to start a family. It was not an easy process. In an envelope (costing 60 cents in postage), came autographed photos of Big Bird and Oscar as well as a letter dated March 28, 2004 which said (I tried to scan it, but it converted to a PDF which I can’t post here, so you’ll just have to take my word for what follows:
“Dear Beth –
Thank you for such a grand letter. I have such a tack of mail I just got to yours — I like to answer them myself.
Our new season starts April 25 (I think) and Oscar ends each show reading a bed time story to his pet worm Slimey.
Next year will be my 36th year with the show. I love playing BB & Oscar.
I was married for eight years — no kids came so we adopted a little girl we named Jessica. (She’s 38 now.) She was sitting on Jim Henson’s lap when he hired me. Then two kids arrived without the aid of an adoption agency. (Born to us) We have 3 grandchildren now.
I hope you have a great family!
His hope for me was answered. I do have a great family. My son and I watched Sesame Street together. I think like me, he liked Oscar a little bit better than Big Bird.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to be Big Bird. It could not have been an easy task for a young man…and yet Caroll continued for decades in that yellow feather suit. And to hear that he suffered from Dystonia (a muscular disease)…it must have been incredibly difficult. (As if being an 8 foot tall bird could be easy!) Even when Caroll gave up the suit to Matt Vogel, he still provided the voice until relatively recently. That’s how dedicated Caroll was to not just his work, but to all who benefited from it. And didn’t we ALL benefit from it? Didn’t we all benefit from Caroll Spinney being part of our world?
In his book Caroll said: “I would really be doing something right, perhaps even important, if I was bringing even a little more compassion into the world through Big Bird.” He did do something right; he did do something important. And perhaps we can honor his memory by trying to be a little bit more compassionate in our daily lives…and before acting thinking “What would Big Bird do?”
Good-bye and God Bless Caroll Spinney.
Beth Shorten is a life-long resident of Verona. For more than five years, she has been chronicling life here on her personal site, Bfth’s Boring Blog.