Friday, January 10, 2020

Goodbye, Big Bird: A Remembrance

He was one of the kindest, most amazing men I have ever met. And when I learned in December that Caroll Spinney had died, I felt like I had lost someone part of my family -- even though I had only met Caroll and his wife, Debi, years ago over a few short days and our only correspondence since had been holiday greetings. And yet, Caroll was present in our lives and many others often -- through his characters of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.


When I first met Caroll Spinney, he was a young guy who was part of a brand new show on public television called "Sesame Street," where he "played" two roles -- Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. I was a college student, studying puppetry as part of my theatre program. He was appearing at MSU during a puppetry festival and after his talk I went backstage to meet him and tell him how much I admired his work and the program.


He was gracious and friendly. And when I met him again 32 years later, he didn't remember. But I never forgot.


It didn't matter that he didn't remember (who would?!) What mattered was that when he came to WKAR all those years after to be part of the station's 50th anniversary celebration, he knocked it out of the park in terms of kindness, generosity and an amazing stamina that boggled our minds.


Caroll was our special guest for the 50th, and he had a pretty rigorous schedule -- media interviews, speaking at two dinners (running simultaneously!), attending and speaking at a reception and then meeting-and-greeting hundreds of children (and their parents, who had grown up with "Sesame Street") at the station open house.


He shook a lot of hands and posed for a ton of photos and pretty much every photo had plenty of smiles!


My job was taking him from hotel to station and back, making sure he and his wife, the delightful Debi Spinney, got where they needed to go when they needed to be there and had what they needed during their visit. I've never met more gracious people (and we had our share of divas now and then). Nor, have I met anyone with such tireless energy.


The thing is, this experience may well have been unique to me but it wasn't unique to Caroll. Public TV colleagues across the country could tell you the same story -- the only thing that might change would be the location and event details!


Caroll was not only a remarkable puppeteer, he was also an artist and author and had written an interesting memoir, "The Wisdom of Big Bird."


While he was in East Lansing, he also not only signed copies of his book, but he wrote very personal inscriptions in each one -- and then drew art work to accompany it. This he did in his hotel room during his breaks. Truly, the man didn't rest!


Caroll and Debi struck up a good relationship with several of my WKAR colleagues and after their visit we exchanged holiday cards. I wouldn't call us "friends" like your neighbor or colleague or your friend from high school, but in a way, Caroll and his characters were everyone's friend. And certainly I think we all treasured those brief times together.

He was also a remarkable artist and each card was a depiction of his two beloved characters.


I have a Christmas wall of some of those cards. I treasure them. (If I could still get the same frames, the rest would be up there too!)


Last Christmas was his first where he included a photo of himself and Debi. I wonder if that was a clue?


Caroll retired from being Big Bird in 2018. After wearing that huge suit in which he could see only through a small camera in front of him, and operating Oscar in a variety of uncomfy positions (hands over head, reaching up from a trash can!), I think he was more than due for a break. He may have started to be ill at that time -- or not. I don't know. This photo from the New York Times obituary only hints at what it would be like to operate an eight foot yellow bird.

Photo Credit: New York Times

What I do know is that he left a tremendous legacy in these two characters he created: Big Bird, the innocent... (I'm guessing this might not be Caroll on the skates, skating to this very touching version "Feliz Navidad," but the character is certainly the gentle giant he created)...

 

...and Oscar the Grouch, here with Michael Buble, singing "Oscar Hates Christmas." He showed that we all have our grouchy side, and yet what wasn't to love in this fuzzy green monster? Face it, we all know and love at least one Oscar.


And for me and Rick he left another legacy, one of very warm and personal memories, good times and discussions and an example of a life well lived.


You'll be missed forever, Caroll. But your characters continue to live on.

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54 comments:

Joyful said...

Such a loss but what a legacy. How wonderful that you got to meet the man who brought Big Bird and Oscar to life. Those characters will forever be in my mind and in the minds of so many others. I see Mr. Spinney was also a very gift artist and you are so fortunate to have several of his works. Condolences to his wife and family.

Misadventures of Widowhood said...

Big Bird lives in the hearts of so many people. You were truly blessed to meet his creator.

Pamela said...

What a wonderful tribute!

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

Oh Jeanie, this is a remarkable tribute. What a wonderful post. You were SO lucky to meet and get to know this legend while he was still active.

Valerie-Jael said...

I am sure you will miss your friend. He was a man of many talents, and the characters from Sesame Street became part of so many lives all over the world. He will not be forgotten! Hugs, Valerie

Rustic Pumpkin said...

What wonderful and happy memories of someone who did so much to put smiles on faces.

~~~Deb in Wales

Sami said...

So sorry to hear about the loss of your friend Jeanie. I had no idea about the artist who was behind Big Bird and Oscar.
He certainly seemed to be a gracious person and also very talented. Love his Christmas card and drawings.
You are left with great memories of a special person.

Iris Flavia said...

I am sorry for your loss. It does not matter how often you met but how he touched your heart...
Oh, you make me feel old now, and such a nice picture of the two of you! And four :-)
I have to add, I am lucky I´m that old, too! I got to see the original, American Sesame Street (translated to German), my Dad watched it with me.
My younger Brother got the German Sesame Street and had to watch it by himself, it is awful!
Thank you - I just bought that book! Thanks to Amazon it´s so easy these days, can´t wait to start! Oh, such a lovely note he gave you, wonderful.
Eww, I hate answering machines ;-)

What a character, thank you for sharing, Jeanie!
Whenever we´re in Perth and the show is on, we watch it!

shoreacres said...

This is a nice post, and a lovely tribute but... I wish I'd never read it. It never had occurred to me that Big Bird wasn't real. Seeing that photo of him disassembled with a human inside was -- distressing. I may never be able to see him as just Big Bird again. So much for suspension of disbelief. I suppose next someone is going to show me that Santa Claus isn't real!

Rita C at Panoply said...

What a sweet tribute to a great man of character!

David M. Gascoigne, said...

Jeanie! This is a lovely tribute to Carroll Spinney, a man who was obviously perfect for the characters he played on Sesame Street, probably one of the most influential components of my daughter's childhood. She and I used to watch it together quite often, and through the show and its characters I was able to talk about the values of tolerance, love and the acceptance, indeed the embrace of others. I have not one scintilla of doubt that the kind, generous thoughtful person she is today, was greatly influenced by that time watching Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, hence vicariously by Carroll. Your life, I am sure, was enriched by having met him, indeed of having come to know him. It is perhaps not inappropriate to say that I share in your sorrow, having known him through the characters he played, and the positive contribution he made to the lives of so many. We really, really need more like him. The world is crying out for positive role models. And on a lighter note, you and Rick looked smashing in those pictures!

R's Rue said...

❤️

La Table De Nana said...

Awww..what a tribute.. my daughters lived breathed and ate Sesame Street!♥What a n artist..actually e and his wife..I would never have known without you:)

coffeeontheporchwithme said...

Sesame Street was my thing. Mornings were a combination of Mr. Dressup, the Friendly Giant, Polka Dot Door, and Sesame Street. My favourite was Grover, specifically Super Grover. I have a spot in my heart for all the muppets. I never knew the same person did both Big Bird and Oscar! How absolutely wonderful that you got to meet the genius behind the puppet! I loved reading this post, Jeanie! -Jenn

gigi-hawaii said...

I remember Sesame Street very well. My two daughters and grandson grew up watching it. You were very fortunate to meet this man and also to receive such fine art from him. Condolences to his family.

Miss Val's Creations said...

A lost treasure. I never knew who Big Bird and Oscar were until now, but I was certainly a fan! The photos of you with Caroll and Oscar so cute. What an incredibly fun artist he was too!

Marilyn Miller said...

Jeanie, this is a precious tribute to a very special man. What a treasure in Christmas cards you have. Love that you have framed some of them. The picture of you, Oscar, and Caroll is so very special. Thanks for sharing this, he indeed will be missed.

bobbie said...

How cool that you got to meet him! And that you have so many tangible items to bring him to mind!
RIP, Mr. Spinney

Tammie Lee said...

Such a lovely tribute Jeanie.
Lovely that you got to know him in the way you did.

Judy at GoldCountryCottage said...

Jeanie, what a wonderful piece of writing and a great tribute to your friend. My kids were both pretty smart when they started first grade and I attribute it mostly to Big Bird..Happy Weekend..xxoJudy

Louca por porcelana said...

Great tribute!When I was a child I watched Sesame streets with my sister and my brother.The "Big Bird" here was called "Garibaldo". Sweet memories...God bless him.

NanaDiana said...

How wonderful that you have such fond memories of the man and his work. He wounds like a wonderful person and you were blessed to know him.
There are some people that leave bigger voids in the world than we will ever really know about- I think he is one of them. xo Diana

Ricki Treleaven said...

How sad! I hadn't heard about his passing, but when I was young, my favorite muppet was Oscar the Grouch. I thought he was fabulous because he said what was on his mind....I thought he was terribly brave!

So exciting that you met him.

Happy New Year!
Ricki Jill

My name is Erika. said...

You must have met many interesting people when you worked. Wow. That is a such a cool thing. Now I must admit we had some interesting speakers at school, but I never get to personally meet them.I am impressed. And those Christmas cards are great. Thanks so much for sharing Jeanie. Hugs-Erika

Karen said...

What a loss. But what a privilege to meet such an inspirational person.

eileeninmd said...

Hello, such a sad loss. Your post is a wonderful tribute. The photos are awesome and a great memory for you! Enjoy your day, wishing you a happy new week ahead.

Mr. Rant said...

What a loss. I am blown away by the illustration he made in the book he signed for you! That is amazing - what a thing to treasure, along with his christmas cards. He was truly a special, one-of-a-kind man! I am part of a generation that grew up with Sesame Street. I loved the characters so much and I learned so much by watching the show. I remember wowing my grandpa and his friends when he'd take me uptown to coffee and I would count to 10 in Spanish for them!

There has been a lot of press coverage about Sesame Street recently and it's ability to a) tackle really tough problems in a kind and gentle way (incarceration, drug abuse, etc) and b) the power of the show to educate under-served populations. It's a really, really important and powerful show!

Carol @Comfort Spring Station said...

It looks like such an amazing experience to meet and to talk with him.

http://mygrammassouljo.blogspot.com said...

Oh Jeannie.....who DOESN'T remember Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. My kids and I grew up with these characters as well. What a wonderful tribute to the creative man who made this all possible.

xo

Jo

Jean | DelightfulRepast.com said...

Jeanie, such a lovely tribute. And I was happy to learn that he didn't turn out to be one of the divas you occasionally had to deal with!

I need orange said...

How nice to spend time with someone who is famous AND a really good guy! I'm so glad you were able to make his acquaintance. Thanks for sharing him with us.

handmade by amalia said...

A beautiful tribute, he sounds like a very special man, Jeanie, I'm sorry for your loss.
Amalia
xo

Anca said...

I am very sorry for your loss.

Nikki - Notes of Life said...

What a wonderful and touching post! :)

anno said...

Caroll Spinney lived big .... in all ways. What a great legacy he has left, and what a wonderful tribute to his generosity, creativity, and welcoming open heart. So glad you two had the chance to meet!

Prims By The Water said...

A sad loss indeed. So glad you were able to meet him. Janice

Lowcarb team member said...

Oh, this is a wonderful tribute.

My good wishes.

All the best Jan

Thelma said...

What a lovely tribute to such a great man who brought so much enjoyment to children. My kids grew up watching Sesame Street. I never knew who was under big bird and the grouch. Thanks for sharing. Thelma xo

Sarah said...

This is such a beautiful, heartfelt post and tribute to Caroll Spinney. Thank you for sharing this very personal experience. Big Bird and all the other characters were such a part of our lives. I started teaching elementary school in 1969, just when Sesame Street was getting started. The children loved it, and so did teachers and parents for its stellar educational programing. Yes, Caroll Spinney was remarkable. I'm pleased to know of your connection and to see those very special Christmas cards. What a treasured collection.

roughterrain crane said...

He has been given us good memories and forever.

Olka said...

Oh, I had no idea about this :( It's such a loss!

Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

Oh Jeanie, what wonderful memories and treasures you have from Caroll Spinney! What a wonderful tribute this is to a wonderful man. I was also sad to hear he passed away recently.
My children are in their early forties and late 30's and grew up watching Sesame Street. My son loved Oscar and my daughter loved Big Bird the best. Obviously, Caroll was their favorite puppeteer!
I will have to see if I can get a copy of that Wisdom of Big Bird book for my daughter.
Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos.

Sandra Cox said...

What a wonderful legacy. And how special that you got to know him and have some of his artwork. In a time when it's hard to find heroes, he's someone we can all look up to.

crackercrumblife said...

How amazing that you got to meet Big Bird, or rather, Carol Spinney. So much of my childhood was spent watching Sesame Street. Oscar the Grouch was my favorite, and I loved Christmas Eve on Sesame Street so much that watching it now with my son just makes me cry, for sentimental reasons. What great memories you have here.

Hena Tayeb said...

I hadn't know.. this is such a wonderful tribute to him.

Sheryl said...

What a wonderful tribute to Caroll Spinney! He was a very special person. I really enjoyed reading your wonderful memories of him.

Debbie-Dabble Blog and A Debbie-Dabble Christmas said...

Jeanie,
What an amazing post about an amazing person!! How wonderful that you actually got to meet this man....Thanks so much for sharing this story with us all...Thanks to for taking the time to stop by!!
Hugs,
Debbie

Pam Richardson said...

Jeanie, what a beautiful tribute to a life well lived. We will always remember the fun characters he created and his amazing talent. Your collection of Christmas cards is a treasure to keep and pass down!

Victoria Zigler said...

Wonderful tribute, and lovely you got to know him like you did.

Dee | Grammy's Grid said...

Who doesn't love Big Bird? My kids and grandbabies grew up with Sesame Street.

Beatrice P. Boyd said...

While Sesame Street was not on during my childhood, I was more Howdy Dowdy Time, I know that many children grew up with the characters including Big Bird, Ernie, Bernie, Cookie Monster and others. You have provided a sweet remembrance of a wonderful individual.

William Kendall said...

I hadn't known that he was also Oscar.

Sketchbook Wandering said...

So wonderful that you were involved with him and puppetry and public tV!!! Puppetry, I adore it so!! Magic and enchantment like none other!! He was an extraodinarily gifted man, how nice that he shared it with the world and made so so so many people happy!! And you make so many people happy too!

French Ethereal said...

Ohhh, this is a lovely tribute to Caroll Spinney, Jeanie! I'm so grateful that you shared this post with all of us... Mr. Spinney and all the other cast members who made Sesame Street's characters come alive for America's children (and for many children around the world) are such a big part of our young lives.

I'm so glad you got to meet him all those years ago and then again with his wife. The photos are terrific!! So are the sweet Christmas cards. :)

Many hugs,
Barb

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