Known By Many, Seen By Few: The Legacy Of Puppeteer Caroll Spinney Lives On | Connecticut Public Radio

Known By Many, Seen By Few: The Legacy Of Puppeteer Caroll Spinney Lives On

Dec 9, 2019

For many, puppeteer Caroll Spinney and his iconic “Sesame Street” characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are unforgettable. Longtime Connecticut resident Spinney, who passed away over the weekend, was one of the original cast members on the show and later wrote a book about his experience.

By the time Caroll Spinney published his book in 2003 -- The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch) -- he'd already been playing the characters for 30 years. That same year, Spinney was a guest on The Faith Middleton Show.

“It was nice to discover that Jim [Henson] sort of let me fly with the thing,” Spinney said, “develop the character that you know, comes out of what you’ve learned from your experience with people.”

It was Spinney’s idea to give Big Bird the earnest, jovial persona of a 6-year-old child rather than that of a “goofy guy.”

“If we played him as a kid, he could learn the alphabet along with kids at home,” Spinney said. “So I thought it doesn’t matter that he’s 8-foot-2, he could still be a big, awkward child.”

As for Oscar the Grouch, Spinney was inspired by a cigar-smoking New York City taxi driver.

“I got in the cab and the guy says, ‘Where to, mack?’ and I said, ‘Oh wow, that’s a voice.’”

In the interview, Spinney told Middleton that his parents named him Caroll because he was born after Christmas on Dec. 26 in Waltham, Mass. The youngest of three boys, Spinney began playing with puppets as a young child. After dropping out of college, Spinney joined the Air Force. Then he began working as an animator, which he said he quickly grew tired of. He picked up puppeteering and performing again in the 1950s and ’60s until joining the cast of “Sesame Street” in 1969.

For Big Bird, Spinney said he’d cut up scripts into smaller pieces of paper so that he could read them from within Big Bird’s puppet suit. The idea for Big Bird’s compassionate nature, Spinney recalled, came after helping a sick, elderly man who was afraid of falling during a slippery winter day in New York City walk safely to his home.

“I’m glad I went back and showed a little compassion,” Spinney said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if ‘Sesame Street’ could teach compassion? Nothing had made me feel better in a long time than that little, not particularly important thing, just taking the old man across the street, but still it felt like it was a good thing to do.”

Hartford-based dancer and comedian Carolyn Paine met Spinney when she was selected to tap dance alongside Big Bird for a “Sesame Street Live” performance in the 1980s.

“I was about 5 years old at the time, so this was a really big deal because it was like getting to be live in my favorite show,” Paine said.

She admits that as a child, she was surprised to learn there was real person behind the character.

“In my mind, I really believed Big Bird to be a real person,” Paine said. “As disappointing as it was to find out that these Muppets weren’t real, meeting Caroll made it OK. If Big Bird couldn’t be real, at least there was Caroll Spinney. He was tall and gentle and just had this really warm spirit about him.” Now, as an adult, Paine says Oscar the Grouch is her “spirit animal.”

Carolyn Paine met Caroll Spinney again later in life at Hartford's Real Art Ways after a screening for the documentary based on his life, "I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story."
Credit Courtesy: Carolyn Paine

When Paine heard the news of Spinney’s passing, she said her day instantly changed.

“It doesn't feel right that we should live in a world without Big Bird, but it’s really that we’re going to be living in a world without Caroll Spinney now,” Paine said. “Big Bird will continue to go on, and I think that’s such an amazing legacy for him to leave.”