The job you were born to do

19

Dear Artist,

As a five-year-old who loved drawing and painting, Caroll Spinney discovered puppets after seeing a performance of The Three Little Kittens. When he was eight, he bought a monkey puppet at a rummage sale for 5 cents, collected some scrap wood and built a puppet theatre. He made 32 cents from his first show. “That’s when I knew I would be a puppeteer when I grew up.”

i_am_big_bird

Caroll Spinney, muppeteer, 1969

The kids at school made fun of Caroll for his name and for playing with “dolls” instead of at team sports. He kept to himself and tried to stay out of the way of his ill-tempered dad, while his mom quietly delighted in his performances and gave him a gift of a Punch and Judy theatre. “She didn’t realize she was giving me my career.”

As a means of escaping his father’s bad temper, Caroll joined the Air Force after high school, moved overseas and drew a comic strip. At 23, he returned to the States and worked as a puppeteer in Las Vegas and on early television shows. In 1962, Caroll was performing at a puppeteering festival when another puppeteer named Jim Henson asked him if he would like to “talk about the Muppets.” At the time, Caroll didn’t understand that Jim was offering him a job. Seven years later at a show in Utah, Caroll had a mishap with a spotlight which was ruining his animated backgrounds and forced him to stop his performance. Backstage and distraught, he was approached by Jim Henson again, who praised him for what he was trying to do. By the end of the year, Caroll had moved to New York to work on Jim’s new experimental children’s television project called Sesame Street.

caroll-spinney_1969

Caroll Spinney and Jim Henson 
on set of Sesame Street, 1969

In an 8-foot, 2-inch tall, full-body suit of footed pants and 5,961 yellow feathers (as counted by the Count), with only a playback monitor strapped to his chest to see and a script taped to where he could read it, Caroll, with his right hand extended above his head and with a ring on his pinky finger, worked the eyes of his new alter ego while opening and closing the beak. At the same time, his other hand worked the left hand, moving the right hand with a counterweight. The other muppeteers crouched and played off one another, working in pairs and able to focus on timing and facial expressions with a second muppeteer working the muppet’s hands. Caroll went it alone in his yellow-tinted world, channelling his 6-year-old self to embody a giant, alphabet-learning, feelings-discovering, friendship-making, singular, anthropomorphic canary named Big Bird.

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Sesame Street Gallery, 1969

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “Show your true colors. Mine is yellow.” (Big Bird, Caroll Spinney)

Esoterica: In Sesame Street’s inaugural year, Caroll struggled to discover Big Bird’s voice and adjust to his physical and technical demands. (He performs everything alone and in the opposite direction, including dancing, rollerskating and unicycling.) While on his way to Jim Henson’s office to quit, Caroll was stopped by Big Bird’s costume builder, Kermit Love. “You will never have this opportunity again. Give it another month,” said Kermit. Forty-eight years later, Caroll Spinney, at 83, is still the principal muppeteer for Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Big Bird has travelled the world, sang with orchestras, won gold records, Grammys and Emmys and a star on the Walk of Fame, all while daily guiding youngsters through their childhoods by way of Sesame Street. “I know I don’t own Big Bird, but I own his soul, I feel.” (Caroll Spinney)

You can see the 2014 documentary, “I Am Big Bird” here.

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Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“I see no reason to quit. I can’t imagine walking away from being Big Bird. I mean, that’s an awfully good job that there’s not too many of them. So I just want to keep doing it till I can’t do it anymore.” (Caroll Spinney)


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19 Comments

  1. I wonder how many men know how important their relationship is with their children.
    Spinney was undoubtedly emotionally crippled to some extent by the lack of fatherly approval.
    Thank you for this story, Sara.

  2. I surely needed to read this today. Many hearts are tender here in Houston after the horrible visitation by Hurricane Harvey. I’m reminded to keep moving and offering and helping. Thank you Sara and Carroll.

  3. Love the story. I have practiced dentistry for over fourty years but deep down always wanted to be an artist feeling it was the job I was born to do.. I love my work and continue to practice but in two weeks my real dream comes true with my first solo exhibition in Winnipeg.

  4. Thanks Sara – After your inspiring recommendation I’ve just ordered the DVD. I’m also much looking forward to Maudie – the film about Maud Lewis but I live in a forest in the UK so will have to wait for the DVD to be released here in October. It’s not getting good reviews but that often means I’ll like it!!

  5. Thank you Sara!

    What a wonderful story to learn about, especially meaningful because, like many folks, I grew up with Sesame Street and have let if fade into the past.
    You pulled together such a huge feeling of a life experience in a couple paragraphs, I really enjoy your ability to do that so well.
    I love the part where Caroll’s plan to quit was interrupted by Kermit.

    – Bright wishes to all

  6. I grew up with big bird. Never thought about the guy inside. Still can’t really. Big bird is big bird. The only person who sees Carroll is Carroll’s mom. Maybe his wife…what is ego to pupetteers? I have always kinda fancied that. Inhabit, make up a life. For sport.

    • That is a great question Catherine. Speaking as a puppeteer, I believe if one is doing an excellent job of projecting, from their body and brain, into the puppet’s brain and body, it’s a tiny speck of playing God. For that moment in time, the puppet lives in a magical connection it has in the brains of those observing. It’s never to late to try it Catherine!

  7. Caroll did not fit into the typical archetype for a male in today’s society and that is probably one of the reasons why his father rejected him. Lucky for him he had a mother who understood him and nourished his natural talents.

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