All photos/art by Carl Tremblay
Carroll Spinney is not Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch: “I just get to bring them to life,” he likes to say. And he has. Since 1969, when Sesame Street first aired on PBS, the now 76-year-old Spinney, a Massachusetts native and Connecticut resident, has been entertaining and teaching kids, just as he dreamed of doing when he was a kid himself. We spoke with Spinney at the offices of the nonprofit Sesame Workshop (formerly Children’s Television Workshop), which produces the show, in New York.
“I gave my first puppet show when I was 8. I loved that you could do a story with your hands and a voice. I built a puppet theater in our barn using old lumber and old orange crates. I had a monkey and a snake, and maybe 16 people showed up. They paid a penny each. I remember everyone going away smiling.
“When I was 12, I saw my first children’s television show–and there was a puppet on it. The guy just wiggled him about; he didn’t lip-sync. I was already doing shows where the puppets talked and I had learned to lip-sync. I thought, Gee, I’m a better puppeteer than he is, and I’m only 12. I told my mother, ‘When I grow up, I’m sure I can get a job in television.’ His bad work made me sure of it.”
“When my brother Donald celebrated his 60th birthday, my wife and I threw him a big party. And I had Big Bird there. I called him up a couple days later just to see if he’d had a good time. ‘Good time?’ he said. ‘My brother only threw me the best party any 60-year-old ever had in his life.’ He’d always been kind of a wiseguy toward me, but his whole attitude changed. That was Big Bird, not me.”
“When I’m playing Big Bird or Oscar, I have to put myself into his thinking. With Oscar, it’s the opposite of how I think things should be, but it’s almost easier to think of funny things that are negative. I like Big Bird more, because I like nice people and he’s a good guy. But Oscar is just a grouch. He’s not nasty; he’s just irritable. There will be days [when] I’ve had the Bird all day long, and it’s nice to know I’ve got the Grouch coming up, where I can go, ‘Heh, heh, heh … Come here, Bob, try my electric spoon.'”
“Several years ago, there was a boy walking across the set with his mother. I was there in my clothes, and the mother goes, ‘David, do you know who that man is? He’s the man inside Big Bird.’ I was thinking, Please don’t do this. He didn’t know there was a man inside; he was really disappointed. It’s like Santa Claus; if a child is under 5 or 6, he generally doesn’t believe there’s a man inside the cosxtume.”
“I’ve gotten used to the fact that Big Bird’s super-famous and I’m a nobody. A journalist once asked me, ‘Doesn’t that upset you?’ I made my peace with it. I’m glad I’m not recognizable.
“People love Big Bird because he gets to live a human life. He has interesting adventures, and I think his goodness and his vulnerability are appealing. And at times he’s triumphant like any kid. One reason why Sesame Street is so delightful to me is because it’s an educational show. It’s actually changed how we teach children, and to think I’ve been a part of that brings a lot of satisfaction. It means I’ve done something worthwhile.”
“I’ve been doing Big Bird for 41 years now. I think it would be great to get to 50, to have done 50 years of playing a 6-year-old. It’s funny, but I’m 70 years older than my character. You can only do that with puppets.”