Friday 24 January 2020

Obituary: Caroll Spinney

Puppeteer and voice artist behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch of the children's show 'Sesame Street'

TRASH TALK: Caroll Spinney and the much loved character Oscar the Grouch of ‘Sesame Street’Show. Photo: AP
TRASH TALK: Caroll Spinney and the much loved character Oscar the Grouch of ‘Sesame Street’Show. Photo: AP

Caroll Spinney, who died last Sunday aged 85, was the American puppeteer who embodied Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on the long-running children's show Sesame Street.

Measuring 5ft 10in, Spinney was dwarfed by the 8ft-tall figure of his avian alter ego. To fill the yellow feathered costume Spinney extended his right arm up into the puppet's neck. Inside the head, the little finger of his right hand rested on the lever that opened and closed Big Bird's eyes, while his thumb controlled the lower jaw.

His only view to the outside world was via a tiny monitor attached inches from his eyes. Despite these physical limitations, Spinney relished his time inside "the feathers". When he took on the character in 1969, he steered Big Bird away from the clumsy oaf imagined by the puppeteer and animator Jim Henson (creator of the Muppets) and gave him the air of an innocent, oversized child.

Big Bird became perhaps the most loved character on the Street, in part because he asked the sort of questions that children ask.

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When Jim Henson died suddenly in 1990 aged 53, Spinney, in his Big Bird costume, sang Kermit the Frog's signature song It's Not Easy Being Green at his memorial service, in a voice cracking with emotion.

Caroll Edwin Spinney was born on St Stephen's Day 1933, in Waltham, Massachusetts, the third and youngest son of Chester and Margaret Spinney, and was named in honour of the Christmas season. His father worked in a watch factory, while his British-born mother was an aspiring fashion illustrator who gave up her career to focus on her three sons.

Nicknamed "Pee Wee" at school because of his diminutive height, Spinney first developed an enthusiasm for puppets at the age of five, when he saw a group of students perform at a local nursery. For a self-conscious and shy child, puppetry was an ideal way to appear before an audience. "As a puppeteer you can hide whatever you are at the moment and be only what they can see," he said. "And you could get the adults to laugh."

By the age of 12 he had 70 puppets, either shop-bought or made by his mother, and was doing shows for birthday parties.

After Acton-Boxborough Regional High School he entered the Art Institute at Boston's College of Art and Design.

His studies were interrupted by four years in the US air force, during which he illustrated a comic strip about military life. He also appeared on his first television show, for the local station KLAS in Las Vegas. The Rascal Rabbit Show debuted in 1955 and ran until Spinney was transferred to Germany a few months later. On his return to Boston Spinney completed his degree and worked as an animator and commercial artist. But he craved the thrill of a live audience, and in 1958 secured a puppeteering role on The Judy and Goggle Show alongside Judy Valentine, followed by a stint as various characters for Bozo's Big Top.

In 1969 he was approached by Jim Henson after a performance in Salt Lake City. Henson, who had already enjoyed some success with the appearance of his Muppets on The Ed Sullivan Show, told Spinney of his plans for a new children's programme, Sesame Street. Spinney accepted the offer without having read a single script, and the first episode was broadcast in November that year.

His role was small at first, but his screen time gradually increased as the popularity of his characters became clear. For the green, furry Oscar the Grouch, Spinney adopted a harsh gravelly tone, inspired by a New York taxi driver whom he had encountered on his way to the audition.

The show received wide acclaim from its first season, winning a Peabody Award and three Emmys. Big Bird was on the cover of Time magazine's November 1970 issue, and that year made the first of several visits to the White House, having his photograph taken with the First Lady, Pat Nixon.

Later, Spinney recalled making something of a faux pas as they drew close together for the camera: "I made a mental note: don't put your wing on the First Lady."

In 1979 he travelled to China for a special performance with Bob Hope, which gave rise to a 90-minute special, Big Bird in China (1983). Two years later Spinney was on board for Big Bird's first cinema release, Follow That Bird.

In the same period he was chosen to join the American space shuttle programme, to interest children in science. Scheduled to fly in the 1986 mission of the doomed shuttle Challenger, Spinney, in character as Big Bird, was ruled too big for the available cabin space and was replaced by the schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

As the puppetry became too arduous for Spinney to handle alone, Sesame Street's producers looked to other performers to take on some of Big Bird's movements. The voice work, however, remained Spinney's. In 2018 he announced his retirement, handing the role to his understudy, Matt Vogel.

Spinney wrote How to be a Grouch (1976), as well as a 2003 memoir under his own name. It was Big Bird, rather than Spinney, who received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994. His voice can also be heard on the LPs The Muppet Alphabet Album (1971), Sesame Street: Big Bird Leads the Band (1977) and Oscar's Trashy Songs (1997). In 2006 he received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy, and a documentary, I Am Big Bird, was released in 2015.

After the failure of his first marriage in 1971, Spinney, married, secondly, Debra Jean Gilroy, a former secretary in the Muppets office. She survives him, as do three children from his first marriage.


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