Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Remembering Caroll Spinney


We have recently lost Sesame Street legend, Caroll Spinney at the age of 85.  He died from complications from dystonia at his home in Woodstock, Connecticut.  In memoriam of this legend to begin 2020, let me honor him by sharing my biggest memories of him.




Big Bird

This hit me big as Sesame Street was my childhood and Big Bird was my favorite as a kid, though Grover has taken that place now as I think he’s the funniest, though in terms of emotion, Big Bird is still up there in second place.  As a kid, I loved seeing Big Bird and his friendship with Snuffy, it was always adorable and charming.  With that, when I wasn’t watching Sesame Street on PBS, I watched my My Sesame Street Home Video VHS tapes which while half the length of the show at the time of release, had original stories and for said cassettes and maintained a lot of the skits.  Most of these starred Big Bird and gave me more of my fondest memories with him.

Big Bird's Reading Hot Line from Getting Ready to Read



Don't Eat the Pictures
I got to see some specials such as Don’t Eat the Pictures which gave Big Bird and Snuffy a fun little adventure in a museum with an Egyptian prince, and of course, I later on video got to see the first Sesame Street movie which was all about Big Bird, Follow That Bird which was surprisingly darker then the main Sesame Street series but still with the heart and humor of the show and specials.  Seeing Big Bird leave Sesame Street to live with a racist family of Dodo birds and then when he doesn’t feel at home and is denied being allowed to see Snuffy due to not being a bird, so he went on a long road trip to get back home to Sesame Street was very emotional and cool for a Sesame Street story.  It’s really a fantastic film if you are both a Muppets fan and especially a Sesame Street fan.




Big Bird in Follow That Bird
Caroll Spinney at a private screening for Follow That Bird



Big Bird's nest rebuilt

One of my other memories which was a sad one was during Season 32 in 2001 on episodes 3976 to 3980 when a hurricane happened at Sesame Street and Big Bird’s nest was destroyed in it.  With this, Big Bird had to rebuild it so he could have his home back and the location got a major overhaul as a result.  The full week’s street scenes from the week long arc are now available officially on YouTube.




Oscar the Grouch

Also along with Big Bird, we have Oscar the Grouch who is the most negative character on Sesame Street, and we all love him for it.  He’s a cranky, miserable, and dirty muppet whom I think humorously represents the negative side of many of us and also adds conflict to Sesame Street where need be.  But I love that despite how he is antagonistic at times, he’s not evil and he is friends with some of the kids and the muppets, notably Telly Monster.
Caroll Spinney as Bruno the Trash Man, Oscar's chauffeur
Oscar and Bruno

An example of Oscar and Telly’s friendship begins with Sesame Street episode 3096 in season 24 of 1993.  In this episode, Telly broke his arm and for many episodes he had to remain in a cast as it healed, and many of Telly’s friends on Sesame Street also wanted to sign his cast.


The point of this with Oscar is that during the broken arm episodes, in episode 3112 which is set on the final day Telly has to keep his cast on before it’s removed, he lets those who haven’t signed it yet know it’s the last chance to get it signed.  Oscar pops out saying he wants to sign Telly’s cast, but despite Telly being friends with him, he knows Oscar’s negative traits as well and fears that Oscar might be falsely getting Telly’s hopes up and when Telly does offer to let him, Oscar will quickly take back saying he wants to sign the cast.  Oscar really wants to sign it and does what he can to prove to Telly that he’s sincere.  He tells a story about when a monster who wanted to give a grouch a hug and the grouch refused until the monster got covered in mud and how Telly’s cast has gotten dirty and Oscar would love to sign it.  Telly believes it for a moment, but Oscar’s marker has no ink and this leads Telly again to believe it was a trick.  Oscar gains a new marker and once again wants to sign the cast, but Telly still doesn’t believe him until Luis and the kids on Sesame Street convince Telly to give Oscar a chance, and Oscar finally signs it which makes Telly so happy that he hugs Oscar.  Yeah, Oscar acts like he doesn’t like the hug, but he’s happy he got to sign Telly’s cast.




In the following episode, episode 3113, Telly gets his cast removed, and at the end of the episode, he gives the sliced up cast which is very dirty and smelly to Oscar, and Oscar is so touched and happy to receive it that in a rare moment, he thanks Telly which he then denies by saying the letter and number sponsors of the episode.  All this was a fantastic moment to show how Oscar despite being so negative most of the time can actually be nice and cool to others every now and then.

We also have Elmo in Grouchland where Oscar admitted Elmo was his friend which gave us more reason to see Oscar as a non-evil person.

So there’s a lot of fond memories with these characters while Caroll Spinney played them and I hold them every dear to me.  Actually, more so than ever now that we’ve lost him.  However, he wasn’t just a voice actor and puppeteer, he was also an artist who drew many pictures, and he even wrote and illustrated one Sesame Street book in 1976 called “How To Be a Grouch” which I haven’t read, but I recommend giving it a read and maybe sharing it with your kids.


He also drew a picture of Mr. Hooper when Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper sadly died, and that picture has been part of Big Bird’s nest ever since.






However, along with writing a book, Carroll Spinney took the Big Bird suit to China to film a tour with Bob Hope called “Bob Hope on the Road to China” and this inspired Spinney to come up with a story so he could go back one more time for his own tale.  He pitched his idea to the Children’s Television Workshop which produces and owns Sesame Street (now known as Sesame Workshop) and it got approved.  However, while this was Spinney’s story, he was not credited as one of the people who wrote it which I feel is a shame.  Jon Stone and Joseph A. Bailey who also did the writing were credited instead.  The story involves Big Bird seeing an old scroll with a picture of a phoenix and the shopkeeper where the scroll is tells Big Bird that it’s a magical bird in China and to find it, he must visit four locations pictured on the scroll.  So Big Bird along with Barkley set out on a boat to China to find the phoenix.  The movie premiered on NBC on May 29, 1983.  I have not as of posting this seen the movie yet.


If you also want to know more about Caroll Spinney’s life, there’s a documentary called “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story” which I’ve seen and it makes you feel very emotional for Spinney and the life he’s had.  I heavily recommend it for fans of Big Bird and Oscar who grew up on Sesame Street.  It’s not for kids just as a heads up, so I recommend it for teens and adults only.


Matt Vogel with Big Bird

Spinney and Vogel together
Now with Spinney gone, Big Bird and Oscar are now permanently left to his successors.  Big Bird is now puppeteered and voiced by Matt Vogel who in the muppets has been the puppeteer of many of the late Jerry Nelson’s characters including Robin (until 2017), Crazy Harry, Lew Zealand, Floyd Pepper, Uncle Deadly, Mr. Johnson, and of course Jerry’s most famous Sesame Street muppet and friendliest vampire in the world, Count von Count.  Matt Vogel has also taken over Kermit the Frog since 2017, so this makes Matt Vogel the successor to the two most iconic muppets of all time.  Listening to Matt Vogel, his voice is deeper than Caroll Spinney’s final Big Bird voice ended up being, in fact, the voice is similar to the original Caroll Spinney Big Bird voice from season 1, but less hickish and still childish.  However, I have heard Matt Vogel can be more similar to Caroll Spinney’s final voice if you listen to him in the Funny or Die video where Big Bird interns there.  I’m wondering why the voice is not kept in that area, but I would prefer he got it back there.  Regardless, he’s been a great successor and he’s been a fan of both Sesame Street and The Muppets as a kid, so for this man to be able to take over these most iconic muppets ever is a major accomplishment and I am very happy for him.

Eric Jacobson with Bert and Grover
As for Oscar, his successor is Eric Jacobson who has taken over for all of Frank Oz’s roles sans Cookie Monster (who is puppeteered and voiced by David Rudman) since Oz retired from the Muppets.  Jacobson has also taken over Jim Henson character, Guy Smiley as well.  Eric Jacobson’s Oscar voice is very close to Spinney’s, but it’s not as raspy as the original, or at least wasn’t at first which I felt needed to be worked on, but as Jacobson kept on performing, he got a lot better and more into Oscar’s character, and I feel he’s fully nailed it.  So these characters are in good hands.

From many of us who grew up for years on Sesame Street and all your joy with Big Bird and grouchiness with Oscar, Caroll Spinney, we will never forget you.

Special Thanks to the Muppet Wiki for the images.

4 comments:

  1. A very lovely article. Caroll Spinney shall indeed be missed.

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  2. You did a great job on this article. Caroll Spinney was such a great guy and it was really sad when he passed away. He was a talented man

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  3. The man was a life-changing performer. He will be missed. Great article.

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