On December 8th, I was heading to my first break at my retail job when I logged into Facebook and saw the news that Caroll Spinney, the Muppeteer behind beloved Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch, had passed away. I was saddened by his passing for many reasons, and I would like to expand on a few of those in this tribute.
I go back a long way with Caroll Spinney’s work on Sesame Street. How far back? My parents recorded it regularly for me, and one of the episodes they recorded was the one where Big Bird finally proved to everyone on Sesame Street that his friend Snuffleupagus was real. When I grew older, I discovered why Sesame Workshop (then known as Children’s Television Workshop) made this change, the reason being they wanted kids to know that they would be believed if they told about being abused or mistreated. Looking back on this, I loved Caroll Spinney’s acting as Big Bird, happy at last for his friends to see he was telling the truth. It was proof of Spinney’s great acting ability.
Another example of Caroll Spinney’s work that has stayed with me is the film Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird. I’ve written about this movie before, most notably in the article Lessons I’ve Learned From 80s Movies, but that movie has stayed with me through the years. The lesson that family isn’t defined by blood, but by love, is something that really resonated with me. Just as Big Bird came to realize that his friends on Sesame Street were his real family, so I came to see that my friends are my family as well. That’s not to say that my blood family doesn’t love me. I bonded with my Uncle Eddie recently over the fact that we were both treated poorly by my mom, and that reconnecting meant so much that I’ll be spending Christmas with his family this year. I’m lucky to have a wide array of people who love me and care for me, and that means a lot.
Speaking of Christmas, and returning to Caroll Spinney, the 1978 special Christmas Eve On Sesame Street allowed Spinney to do some more great work as both Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch, the latter of whom inspires Big Bird to go to the roof when asking how Santa Claus will be able to visit Sesame Street. Oscar’s song “I Hate Christmas” is something I can imagine many misanthropes singing around this time of year, and Spinney delivers the annoyance in the lyrics perfectly. The special talks about the importance of believing, and I always believed in Sesame Street. Caroll Spinney was a big reason why I did.
That belief occasionally caused heat as I aged. All throughout high school, I had to deal with teachers who felt that my discussions of watching Sesame Street were as offensive as if I had cursed in class. They felt I was too old to be watching it, and that it wasn’t appropriate for me to watch. These were special education teachers, so you would’ve expected them to be more understanding of that quirk, but the late 90s and early 00s were very different times. I tried explaining how I watched it for the celebrity cameos and the parodies, but they didn’t get me.
A great example of how such a show could be educational even for older people came with another Big Bird segment, this time seeing him and Zoe (Fran Brill) interact with Christopher Reeve a few years after Reeve’s accident. It was a very touching segment, and it was educational in the way that it helped people understand how one could live life after a horrible accident. Spinney’s acting helped Big Bird serve as an audience surrogate.
I eventually stopped watching Sesame Street, but not because I grew out of it. It was more because it was on either too early or too late for me to catch it on PBS. I never stopped loving the show, though, and I caught up with it on YouTube. I watched Caroll Spinney’s work all the way to his retirement, but a few years before he retired, something very special happened.
It was the first Chiller Theatre I attended in October of 2014. Caroll Spinney was a guest on Sunday of the convention, and I knew I had to meet him. When I did, I told him about the impact that Sesame Street had on me as a man on the autism spectrum, the heat I caught from my high school teachers for watching, the way I defied them by continuing to watch it, and the tremendous impact Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird had on me as both a child and an adult. He was touched by that, and he even sang a few bars of “Easy Going Day” for me, and I naturally sang along. He gave me an autograph for free, and we took a picture together.
I was honored to get a free autograph, but when he appeared at Chiller in October of 2016, I knew I had to pay him back, so I saw him again and gave him the money I would’ve paid for the 2014 autograph. Unfortunately, his health was declining at the time, and he had some difficulty in signing an autograph for my brother, but he got through it, and I was honored to get his autograph for my brother.
I knew he had some health issues, but at the same time, Caroll worked through them with great humor and compassion. His passing saddened me, but I’m glad I had the chance to tell him what an impact he had on me. Caroll Spinney is free of the pain that wracked his body, and his kindness and good spirit will live forever, not only on Sesame Street, but anywhere there’s curiosity in the world.
R.I.P Caroll Spinney.