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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