“I get literally thousands of letters saying how much Big Bird affected them...” hmv.com talks to Caroll Spinney
Since the first episode of Jim Henson's creation Sesame Street first aired in 1969, generations of children all over the world have grown up with its famous characters, known collectively, of course, as The Muppets. The show's puppets have become celebrities in their own right, with the likes of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy becoming some of the most recognisable characters on television.
Although Jim Henson's time on Earth sadly came to a premature end in 1990, his legacy lives on and one man who is still going strong is Caroll Spinney. The man in the Big Bird costume and the voice behind Oscar the Grouch, Spinney has been wearing the big yellow bird costume for 45 years now and is still doing so today. In recognition of this feat and as a tribute to his incredible life, this week sees the release of a documentary about his extraordinary career, entitled I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.
We caught up with Caroll for a chat about working the same job for nearly five decades, being asked to go into space by NASA, and how his career as a puppeteer began before he was even born, in the unlikely location of Blackpool, England...
How & when did you first get involved with the documentary, were you approached?
“Yes, I was approached by Copper Pot Pictures, they're a small production company run by three guys in their thirties, Dave LaMattina, Chad Walker and Clay Frost. They said they wanted to make a film about Big Bird and asked if I would be interested. So they approached us through Sesame Street.”
What was your reaction?
“I said: 'I have a life interesting enough to make a whole movie out of it?!' But anyway they talked to us about it and we thought it might be interesting, after all I'm getting on in the years, it might be nice to be known, because I'm really still pretty unknown. People know about the characters, obviously, but they don't know much about me!
“That was five years ago, and Debbie (Gilroy, Carrol's wife) has been making home movies and videos for years about our life – as Chad puts it, we film everything we ever do! We had thousands of hours of our lives on videotape, so I asked them if they'd be interested in using any of it. They had never had anyone who was the subject of their films provide any material themselves, so that helped make the film pretty interesting I think.”
How involved were you with the direction of the film?
“Well, we just gave them piles and piles of this home movie stuff and they had to spend the next two years looking at it all and transferring it to a usable digital format. Then they had to catalogue all the stuff they wanted to use and try and decide how to arrange it into a viable film. So the whole process took about five years.”
I read that your first puppet experience was a Punch & Judy show in Blackpool, is that true?
“Ah, no, I wasn't there. But my mother used to see those shows there when she was a little girl, she was born up in Bolton. I've still never been, but someday I want to see that part of England.”
So how did you come to have ambitions of being a puppeteer? Was it something you always wanted to do?
“I saw my first puppet show when I was five years old, and when I was eight I got the chance to buy my first puppet for five pennies. It was this old, beat-up monkey puppet, it wasn't very good, but it was enough for me to start trying to make a puppet show with it. I'd get people to pay two cents to come and see my little puppet show in the barn!
“That's where Punch & Judy came in, because my mother would sit in the audience and she remembered seeing the shows when she was a little girl, she was an artist so she built me some Punch & Judy puppets, the policeman, the hangman. A lot of those characters I dropped, they didn't go down well over here. People didn't want to see the hangman trying to hang Punch! So gradually she started writing shows for me, she built me 70 different puppets over the years. So anyway, along came television and I decided I wanted to be a TV puppeteer.”
How much license were you given with the characters like Big Bird and Oscar?
“Well, Oscar is pretty much the way Jim Henson pictured him and the way the writers interpreted it. He hasn't really changed anything since then except his colour, he was orange in the first year but ever since then he's been green. As Oscar would put it, 'I'm still orange if I take a bath!”
Do you find Oscar more fun to play? He's got that mischievous side to him...
“Yeah, he has, that's a part of it anyway. I mean they're both fun to play, but they're so different from each other. I like Big Bird's innocence and slight naivety, and his adventures. He's an emotional character and so am I. Oscar's chief emotion is irritability! But yes, he's a lot of fun to play because he's so adult, as opposed to Big Bird who is definitely still a child. He's six, permanently!”
You've played some other characters on the show too - outside of Oscar & Big Bird, which has been your favourite?
“I've played a few others like Granny Bird, Big Bird's granny who shows up once every ten years. Literally! The only character I designed and built myself was Bruno the Trashman, I created him. But somebody told me that I was being very insulting to Italians. This guy told me 'everybody knows Bruno is an Italian name'. I mean, if you go to Europe you can find people called Bruno in about 30 different countries, it's a popular name! But anyway, Bruno doesn't exist any more. That material the puppets are made out of fades away after a while and turns to powder, it cost too much to build another one. I miss you Bruno!”
There are some incredible stories in the film, one that stands out is the NASA story, the one about them wanting to send Big Bird up on the space shuttle Challenger in the 1980s – how did that come about? Why do you think they asked you to get involved?
“I got a letter from five astronauts saying that the children in America weren't particularly interested in NASA anymore, because of Star Wars and stuff like that. You know, because there was Han Solo and his ship was so much faster and could go into warp speed and all that! So they thought if Big Bird went up there then you could broadcast videos back to land and put them on the network. So I said 'well, ok, I'll go, sounds exciting!'
“But alas – and fortunately, given what happened – they didn't have enough storage space for the Big Bird suit. I did want to go though. I got to watch the Atlantis shuttle go up, there's nothing so exciting as seeing that thing take off.”
It's a testament to the character's popularity though, the idea that kids would want to join the space programme just because they saw Big Bird on a shuttle! What do you think the secret to Sesame Street's longevity is, and the way these characters affect people so much?
“As the children watch it they often identify with Big Bird having similar stories. I think we have a great gang of writers and they wrote such wonderful stories for him. I get so many letters from the children that write to Big Bird and it's reflected in the letters I think. They always say 'Dear Big Bird, you're my friend'. One my favourites was from a boy that said 'You're my friend, I wish you could and play with me. How about next Thursday?' Ha!
“I get literally thousands of letters saying how much Big Bird affected them. I was talking to a guy the other day about Mr. Hooper' s death and he said that his father had died about a week before that episode aired, and he told me how much that episode made him feel better. It's incredibly powerful.”
Do you think you'll ever retire?
“Well, probably because I'll have to. I mean, right now I'm still in pretty good shape, but I'm 81. I was 35 when I got the job, can you imagine doing the same job for that long?! It couldn't be more delightful to me, I just hope that I'm still able to do it for a couple more years. Another four years and I'll have 50 years on the job. But I don't want to quit just yet, I hope I can go on beyond that.”