Jessica Gross | Longreads | May 2015 | 13 minutes (3,430 words)
Caroll Spinney has performed Big Bird and Oscar on Sesame Street since the show launched in 1969, almost half a century ago. A new documentary, I Am Big Bird, follows Spinney’s journey from a somewhat difficult childhood—his father had abusive tendencies, and he was picked on in school—to becoming a childhood icon, not to mention a man in an almost absurdly happy marriage. Spinney’s wife, Debra, sat nearby (laughing and interjecting sporadically) as we discussed the film, the physical and emotional reality of playing these characters, and what kind of guy a grouch really is. Big Bird and Oscar made cameo appearances.
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The film features a lot of old footage that you and your wife, Debra, gathered over the years. What was it like to go through all those old tapes?
We didn’t look at any of it, although Deb had categorized it all. We gave the filmmakers many boxes of videotapes, literally hundreds of hours of television, because we’ve been taking videos since 1978. Before that, starting in 1954, I was taking eight millimeter movies, which is that blurry stuff in the film. An eight millimeter picture is just a little more than a quarter inch wide, so you can imagine when that’s blown up a million times it looks pretty soft. But it kinda makes nice footage for the story.
What was it like for you to watch the film after all that time?
It was interesting to see what they had picked out. We first watched it at home on the flat screen. But the next time I watched it, we were in Toronto in a theater with 300 people on a 60-foot-wide screen, and it’s a very different experience to watch it with other people than with just the two of us. You could hear their emotions, and you could tell they were using Kleenex at certain times. There’s about three moments in the thing that are quite emotional, I think partly due to the wonderful music that was composed for it.
Can you tell me what those three moments are?
Jim Henson’s funeral would be one. Brian Henson, Jim’s oldest son, asked if I would sing, as Big Bird, “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” which was Jim’s swan song, his favorite song. And the Sesame Street episode about Mr. Hooper’s death was very moving. And then the part about my father. He was kind of scary when I was a kid. And yet, as an old man, he became a sweet, wonderful old fellow.
Based on the film, it seemed as though, during your childhood, your parents were at opposite ends of a spectrum: you had this supportive, loving mother and this father who had quite angry, abusive tendencies. I saw a parallel there to Big Bird and Oscar, who also seem to be at opposite ends of an emotional spectrum. Does that ring true to you at all?
No, there’s no parallel, really. I do dwell on the past, as my wife Deb points out [Debra laughs in the background], but that’s pretty well a dead issue. Plus, the characters of Big Bird and Oscar were pretty well defined by Jim Henson, who created the puppets. In the early ’60s, when he gave me Big Bird and Oscar, he had decided one was a grouch who lives by himself, and the other was Big Bird.
Big Bird was kind of a goofy guy when they started, but a couple months into the show, I decided that instead of just a dumb, goofy guy, he should be a child, learning. And I think that was a better idea. Then children could identify with Big Bird, which indeed they did and they still do. It’s kind of an unusual situation, since at this point I’m about 74 years older than the character I play.
How did you decide that Big Bird would be six years old, specifically?
When we first decided, I said I thought Big Bird didn’t even recognize what the alphabet was, but he was trying to learn. So I decided he would be four and a half. Of course, kids now pretty well know the alphabet, because of Sesame Street, starting at two and a half or three. But when I went to kindergarten, they never even mentioned the alphabet—they thought kindergartners were too young to learn. And they were quite wrong.
Anyway, a year and a half goes by, and the show slowly evolves. They started writing more things about Big Bird. At one point there was a poem by Big Bird—[in Big Bird’s voice:] “That’s me!” And he would then read it. And I felt that, okay, now he can read, and he has written a poem, which is something I can’t even do. So I decided he had to be six, but that we should stop at six, because we didn’t want him to grow up and have to go to college or anything.
I kind of want to see that—”Big Bird in College.”
[Laughs] Yeah, that would be pretty good, wouldn’t it? You could make some good movies about Big Bird as a teenager, too. [Big Bird’s voice:] “Whatever!”
What do you think he’d be like as a teenager?
Well, I wasn’t a wise guy teenager. I was kind of small and shy. And also, I didn’t want to irritate my father. And I patterned Big Bird a little bit after my own childhood. I think that it’s not easy being a teenager.
No, it certainly isn’t. The film goes into your background a bit, and how you were bullied in high school. You didn’t have the easiest time as a small kid with the name Caroll.
I have very strong memories of my early childhood. A lot of people don’t remember much about being a baby, but I can remember events before I was even three years old.
I was born in the first third of the ’30s. So I remember some of the Depression and the difficulties we had; the factory my father worked in shut down…money and all that. It must have been hard for him. And the pay was pathetic, even though he ran about forty machines that were fully automatic in 1912. They made tiny little screws for watches—some of them were so small they looked like dust. They sold watches no bigger than a dime for women back in the ’20s and ’30s.
That sounds like a really difficult job.
Yeah, maybe that’s why he was such a grouch.
I never identified Oscar the Grouch with my father being a grouch. I never saw that as him. I mean, I knew he was grumpy, I had to live with that. We had only two rooms to live in in the winter, because the house I grew up in was built in the 1700s or 1800s with no insulation whatsoever and no furnace, only the kitchen with the big black stove and a small space heater in the dining room next to the kitchen. Otherwise, all seven other rooms were ice cold. A glass of water would freeze solid overnight beside your bed. I was used to that, and I just thought that’s how everybody lived. A neighbor kid invited me up to his house. I went, and he said, “Do you want to see my bedroom?” We go upstairs and it’s nice and warm. “How come it’s warm?” “Well, the furnace keeps it warm.” I said, “Furnace? What’s a furnace?” [Laughs]
And so, into this context, comes puppeteering. You bought your first puppet, a monkey, for five cents, and put on a show with that and a stuffed green snake. You’ve said you don’t remember the details of the show you put on, but could you tell me how you felt, why it was so magnetizing?
I had seen two different puppet shows when I was younger, and thought it was a wonderful thing that you would tell a story with something on your hand. No, I don’t remember the story. I remember I sang a song, though. There was a song at the time, “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake.” I think I used that song, but made it “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Snake.” Otherwise I don’t remember what it was. But people all clapped at the end, as though it was a real show, and they laughed. I don’t remember a thing about it other than the fact that I loved the applause. And I made thirty-two cents, which was big money in 1942. That could take you to the movies three times.
When I was 12, my English teacher said, “I heard you did puppets. When do you give shows?” I said, “Almost never.” I did only a few shows once in a while. So she said, “Well, I’ll pay you two dollars and I can pick you up in my car. Will the theater fit in my car?” I said, “Yes.” So I gave a puppet show for her niece, and I started doing puppet shows. She got me started. I did that show and I liked the two bucks.
About a month or so ago, we were looking through some things in a spare closet we don’t use much, and I found that monkey puppet. I didn’t know I still had it.
I’d like to talk about the physicality of inhabiting the Big Bird costume. As I understand it, you can’t see out of it and have to wear a video monitor to guide you, plus you have to hold your arm above your head to hold up Big Bird’s head and operate his beak. Then you have your lines taped up inside the costume. It all sounds incredibly physically demanding. So, to start: Is the arm that you hold up much stronger than the arm that you don’t?
There used to be an urban tale that my right arm was twice the size of my left. Although that wasn’t true, I would say it was twice as strong. The bird’s head weighs four and a half pounds, which doesn’t sound heavy until you try to hold it over your head for fifteen minutes. A guy once said, “Well, four and a half pounds, that’s nothing. I could hold a hundred pounds over my head.” I said, “I don’t think so. I bet you can’t hold your empty hand over your head for five minutes, let alone if I put a four and a half pound head in your hand at the same time.” About two and a half minutes into it, he’s going, “Geez…” He never made it to the five minutes. He said, “This is stupid, I’m not doing this.” Well, he was stupid, anyway.
How hot is it inside that costume? I imagine it’s really, really warm.
Well, feathers make nice warm down comforters. They don’t particularly bother me too much on set unless it’s a long scene and I have to keep doing a physical thing over and over. They keep it very cold in there. The puppeteers like it cold.
Live shows are very definitely the worst. For eight years, I had a long series of conducting symphony orchestras as Big Bird. It was an hour and ten minutes long and I would lose maybe two or three pounds in that hour, just from sweating. That’s the major reason why I stopped doing the concerts. And I was tired of living out of a suitcase.
You’ve said that the first time you conducted the Boston Pops, it was so awesome you nearly dropped the baton.
Arthur Fiedler was the conductor, and he gave me his baton and afterwards he let me keep it. I still have the baton that belonged to Arthur Fiedler! He said, “Bring the baton up, and then bring it down, and they will start.” I did that and, badumm—80 pieces suddenly flash into awesome sound. I thought, “Oh, my God, I started that!”
What about when you’re playing Oscar? Does it hurt your knees to be crouching down like a baseball catcher?
Actually, when I do Oscar, I am sitting in a chair, leaning forward and putting my upper body into an opening at the back of the trashcan. I used to kneel back when we started, when I was only in my thirties. It put me at the right height, and I knelt on a thick pad. But later on, I decided a chair worked just as well, and enabled me to get into and out of position more quickly.
You’ve done not only Sesame Street, but also movies, including Follow That Bird. How do they compare?
It’s very different to make a movie than to do television. With the movie, it would take sometimes as much as an hour and a half to set up the next scene, so it was a lot of time in the Winnebago, waiting. And we would only get about two to three minutes of the film done each day. So it took a couple months to do the movie.
I gather, then, that you prefer TV?
Well, I love the immediacy of it. And it’s very, very exciting to know people will see it by the billions. It’s kinda nice to know you’re doing that, and it’s working.
What is it like to act like a kid, in the case of Big Bird, or really angry, in the case of Oscar? Is there anything cathartic about that for you?
No, I don’t think so. Oscar is irritable, you could certainly put it that way, but there is no real anger involved in him. A grouch is not necessarily a mean person. I have a friend named Günter, who is from Germany. When they were losing the war and we were winning, the food stopped coming, and the people were starving. Günter had a very grouchy neighbor when he was a boy—if your ball went into his yard, you’d never get it back. One day, they were looking through the dump for food, and the grouch guy turned over a big piece of tin and there was a big can of peaches there with the label still on it. Günter was closer to it and he ran to it, but the grouch reached right over and picked it up. But then he looked at Günter and said, “You know what, you probably need this more than I do, you’re just a boy,” and handed the can to him. That’s what I think Oscar would do. He is not cruel.
You’re 81 now—could tell me a bit about what it’s like to do such a challenging physical role as you get older?
I don’t necessarily hold Big Bird up as tall every time, although I am conscious of that as far as bringing my arm way back to make him very straight and tall. Matt Vogel [Spinney’s understudy, who will one day take over the role] is my stand-in, at times, if it’s a very awkward or difficult task, like dance. I cannot learn dance steps, so he will do them. But mostly it’s just a bit of a struggle—but it always was. It wasn’t even easy when I was 35.
As Sesame Street progressed, Elmo, who is younger than Big Bird, came onto the scene and started to eclipse Big Bird in some ways. Why do you think the show wanted to skew towards younger viewers?
When we first started, we were aiming at kids four to seven or eight years. Now, it’s two to four; even one-year-olds are learning things from watching the show. The audience is far younger than they ever dreamed the show could work for. Elmo is three and a half, and I think that that just suited their goals better. Big Bird, at six, is an old-timer.
Why is it three and a half years old instead of just three?
Children are growing very fast at that age, and they could be a little more sophisticated at three and a half than they are at just three. But it’s also three and a half because a lot of kids, when you ask how old they are, say something like, “I’m ten and a half.” We try to make it real for the little kids, and I think we’ve succeeded in doing that. The letters I get, from children who identify with Big Bird, are wonderful. “Dear Big Bird, you are my best friend. Why don’t you come over and play? How about next Thursday?” That’s one of them. Another one is, “Guess what? My mom and dad bought me bunk beds. Why don’t you come and stay over? You can have the top.” I said, “Wow, I like the top bed.”
Do you usually reply to these letters?
Yes, I often do. One letter I got from a five-year-old was quite different than all the others because it wasn’t addressed to Big Bird, but to me. “Dear Caroll Spinney, I think you do a wonderful job at being a puppeteer who plays Big Bird.” And he’s five years old.
So I answered the letter and then I got another letter from him about two years later, when he was seven. It was a much more sophisticated letter. He said, “If you want, you can give me a call, here’s my number.” I called him. Ever since then, I have been mentoring him. His name is Weston Long and he’s now a teenager, on the road as a puppeteer, doing a very delightful show about the life of fish. It’s a great comedy, it’s touring the whole country. And his name is so perfect.
Wow, that’s an amazing story. That’s lovely. The last question I wanted to ask was about something that you’ve said in interviews, that puppets can demonstrate more humanity than real people at times. Why? What is it about puppets that can make them more human than humans?
I think it’s because of the audience. They’re little kids, and everybody is a great big grown up to them, whereas Big Bird is another kid they can identify with to a degree—which is kinda funny, since he’s 8’2″. Plus, I think the writing is so good on our show and they put him in a lot of emotional scenes, which are my favorite ones to do. I am extremely emotional; I live in a state of emotion, constantly. The show doesn’t get into the humans’ lives enough to see them frustrated or end up crying. Whereas Big Bird, and even Oscar—one show a few years ago a wild seagull landed by his trash can, and he brought him in and nursed him back to health. And Oscar got to like him very much. One day, he comes back to his trashcan, and the bird is gone. And I had to have him cry his heart out from the depth of his soul. He said, “I thought he was my friend, I thought…” And they had to explain to Oscar he was a wild bird, he had to fly away, you couldn’t make a pet of him. I had never had Oscar cry before, and I was amazed; he sounded like he really had lost his best friend.
Well, I think that’s all my questions. I should say that I grew up watching Sesame Street all the time, so it was a thrill to be able to talk to you.
[In Big Bird’s voice:] “Thank you, Jessie. Hey, Oscar? You want to say something to Jessie?” [In Oscar’s voice:] “I think her name is Jessica, you idiot.” [Big Bird:] “What are you gonna say to Jessica, Oscar?” [Oscar:] “Have a rotten day.”
[Laughs] Well, thanks.
[Oscar:] “What do you expect? I’m a grouch.”
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This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.