Jan 29, 2003
Caroll Spinney honored in San Jose
San Jose Mercury News -- Jan 28, 2003
by Mark de la Vina
reprinted entirely without permission
Everybody's heard about the bird.
But puppeteer Caroll Spinney has worked in relative anonymity inside the 8-foot-2-inch Big Bird costume on Sesame Street for 33 years, since the first show on Nov 10, 1969.
Children's Discovery Museum will call attention to the performer, who still appears on the PBS show, by awarding him its Legacy for Children Award at a fundraiser at San Jose's Fairmont Hotel on Thursday, Jan 30. Proceeds will go toward museum programs such as the Open Door Policy, which provides access to children who can't afford admission. The event also includes cocktails, dinner and clips from Sesame Street.
Spinney, who also plays trash-can denizen Oscar the Grouch, is among the original performers on Sesame Street, which is broadcast in 148 countries.
The voice and puppeteer of Big Bird and Oscar spoke with the Mercury News from his home in Connecticut about the award, the evolution of his characters and his recent brush with 'N Sync.
In the beginning, did you ever expect that Sesame Street would become such a cultural phenomenon?
CS: With the very first show we were making, I thought right away, "Gee, this is good." But if you look at the first year now, it was so crude. It must have shown how bad the rest of TV was at the time. Big Bird looked like a rag bag. The first couple of months on the air, his right arm didn't work, but we fixed that.
Wasn't Oscar the Grouch originally orange?
CS: At first, Jim Henson was going to build this purple grouchy thing who lived in a pile of trash. Then he made him orange for the first season. I didn't like his color very much. Jim Henson then built him as green, which I like to say is a natural phenomenon for somebody that likes to stay at Swamp Mushy Muddy, one of Oscar's favorite places.
When you're in the Big Bird costume, you work with a small wireless TV monitor strapped to your chest. What does it show?
I see the same picture that you see when you're watching the show. That way I can see if he's looking at a character or looking into the camera. If I have to make a complex move, there are a couple of feathers attached with Velcro that I can move, so I can see out and look for a point of reference, like a door frame.
Is it true that you receive packages of bird seed for Big Bird?
Yes, but I give them away. As a matter of fact, in the first year on Sesame Street, Big Bird ate worms. And I said, "You know, that's too icky." So we had him eat bird seed.
Has Oscar received his own garbage scow from any devoted fans?
I got a package some time ago from a father and son in Arizona. They found a chrome Sunbeam toaster that someone had driven a truck over out in the desert. They put it in a box with a few bottle caps, and sent it to me. I kept it for a while, but it met with a lovely end in a trash truck.
Have you ever put the voice of Big Bird on your answering machine?
I did for a while, but people would call and hang up just to hear the message. However, the 'N Sync boys -- they were on Sesame Street -- asked if I would do one for them as Oscar. You know -- [ in the voice of Oscar ] -- "Justin Timberlake is not here right now. What's it to you?" Lance Bass was the first one to ask.
How did you get into puppets?
When I was 8, I bought a little puppet at a church rummage sale, and my mother gave me a stuffed flannel snake that she had made for me. For Christmas, she built me a Punch & Judy set. I thought using puppets was a great way to tell a story for kids. A puppeteer is a sort of a person who tries to be anything but himself.
What do you think of the new cachet that puppeteering has gained with such artists as Basil Twist, Mabou Mines and Julie Taymor's use of puppets in The Lion King, not to mention The Puppetry of the Penis?
In America, unlike Europe, puppets are never taken seriously. Sesame Street really helped put the Muppets on the map, and the Muppets were instrumental in helping open some doors. I think artists have just started exploring what you can do with puppets. You can go in any direction.
Thanks to Joe Hennes for sending this article!