This one hurts.
Of the handful of obituaries that I’ve written during my time as a roving writer on all things pop culture, the death of the gentleman who populated my childhood with hope, compassion, understanding and acceptance is by far the most personal, the most visceral I’ve ever had to scrape words together for. “Death ends a life, not a relationship” author Mitch Albom famously wrote in Tuesdays with Morrie and he could have just as easily been referring to the recent passing of puppeteer Caroll Spinney who, from 1969 until 2018 famously played the iconic character of Big Bird from PBS’s Sesame Street. Looking over this last written sentence of mine, I’d like to up the ante and go a little further by saying that Mr. Spinney not only played this beautiful and yellow feathered delight but that he was and forever is, in fact, Big Bird. At least that’s true for this one-time latchkey kid who spent many an afternoon growing up with Big Bird and the other inhabitants of that very magical street they all resided on.
Mr. Spinney was born at the height of the Great Depression in the town of Waltham, Massachusetts on December 26, 1933, a very slightly belated Christmas present to his parents. At an early age he took up pencil, drawing pad and paint brush and taught himself the intricacies of illustration and writing, using that talent in good stead when, while serving a stint in the Air Force, he wrote and drew the comic strip Harvey which was all about the military life he found himself living.
It was puppeteering though that ultimately became his muse. He discovered this now nearly lost art when he was but a wee lad of five and caught a puppet show called Three Little Kittens. This was Mr. Spinney’s access drug into the old tradition of puppeteering and by the time he was eight years old he had found enough loose change to buy his own puppet – a monkey – at a rummage sale. With childlike glee, he began putting on his very own puppet shows for friends and family utilizing the monkey and a plush snake to create whole worlds of his own imagining. Spinney parlayed the neat trick therein of doing the puppeteering he so loved while at the same time making money from it, enough so that it allowed him to raise tuition money for his college education.
After leaving the Air Force, Mr. Spinney bumped around from 1955 through 1958 puppeteering in Las Vegas in the show Rascal Rabbit. He then wound down the era of Ike and fin-tailed cars in the puppet extravaganza, The Judy and Goggle Show. The early part of the 1960s brought him no small amount of fame when he joined up with the Boston broadcast of Bozo’s Big Top. Not content with that workload, the amiable puppeteer also drew upon his strengths and history as an artist to work as an animator and a commercial artist.
But it’s really Caroll Spinney’s time inhabiting the role of sweet and sage-like Big Bird for the daily show Sesame Street that he’s most fondly remembered for. A friendship with puppet master Jim Henson led to the nearly fifty year gig where he also essayed the part of everyone’s favorite curmudgeon, Oscar the Grouch. These two iconic characters, beloved by children the world over, became Spinney’s calling card and it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than this Waltham native inhabiting and giving life to these two pillars of kiddom.
Which is, I suppose, where I came into the equation; nope, don’t bother searching those always reliable Wikipedia pages for ye olde scribbler’s name in association with Mr. Henson and Mr. Spinney. I was born in 1973 and as such had missed the early adventures of my favorite bird, but by the time I could coherently put a thought together – heck, maybe even before that – I was an avid Big Bird and Sesame Street aficionado and I took the little life lessons that they doled out so freely and generously every day and used them and adapted them to my own life. So did a lot of other kids, I would safely wager. All of the generations of children that grew up with Big Bird as brought to life by Mr. Spinney belong to a very special club and it’s a world club made up not of arbitrary borders, political parties, racial divides or cultural chasms, but rather a club composed and filled with wonderful words like love, diversity, friendship, understanding, empathy and joy. It’s a club that’s a lifetime membership and one that I try to honor and celebrate every waking day in how I treat other people regardless of where they come from and what their circumstances might be.
Caroll Spinney gave our respective childhoods shape, meaning and definition and I can’t think of a more enduring and lasting legacy for Big Bird. Fly high on this new adventure, Mr. Spinney. We all love you.