We have lost a vital voice in children’s television, Caroll Spinney, though one of my favorite characters will live on: the immortal Big Bird. Spinney died at 85. Part of my admiration stems from a two-year stint with a day care, Mama Yoyo’s. Watching “Sesame Street” was part of the afternoon. The children were between the ages of 3 and 5, and for them, Bert, Ernie and especially Big Bird were very real people.
Spinney was a voice-over actor who got the role of a lifetime, though none of my kids would ever hear his name. “I may be the most unknown famous person in America,” Spinney said in his 2003 memoir. “It’s the bird that’s famous.”
According to Andrew Dalton, “Caroll Spinney voiced and operated the characters of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch from their inception in 1969 when he was 36, and he performed them almost exclusively into his ’80s on the PBS kids’ television show.”
The 8-foot, 2-inch Big Bird was the naive but sweet character who helped children through the learning process. In a 1983 episode when the actor playing Mr. Hooper, a shop keeper on “Sesame Street,” died, Big Bird asked the big questions children watching would ask: “Who’s gonna take care of the store? Who’s gonna make my birdseed milkshakes and tell me stories?”
When “Sesame Street”’s creator, Jim Henson, died suddenly in 1990 at age 53, Big Bird played the same part in real life.
At the funeral, Spinney appeared alone on stage in full Big Bird costume and sang “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green,” Kermit the Frog’s signature song. Spinney said he was crying under the feathers but he got through the song, looking at the sky and saying, “Thank you Kermit,” before walking off (Andrew Dalton).
To play the part, Spinney would strap a TV monitor to his chest to see. The giant yellow bird body was placed over him. He held his right arm aloft constantly to operate the head, and used his left hand to operate both arms. Then He added that distinct tenor voice.
I saw some major musical stars live: Elvis Presley in San Francisco, the Beatles final performance at Candlestick Park, also in San Francisco, and one of my favorite evenings — seeing Janis Joplin live. The most stunning live show I ever witnessed, however, was in the presence of screaming preschoolers; the major star skating across the ice was Big Bird.
When the annual Ice Follies included the “Sesame Street” characters, the children were ecstatic. The afternoon of the show, they had to nap but that proved impossible. When the show began, cowboys and Indians staged gun battles on the ice. The kids grew restless. A boy named David asked, “Big Michael, where’s Bert and Ernie? Where’s Big Bird?”
Then the moment came. The theme song for “Sesame Street” began and dressed in a huge yellow-feathered costume, Big Bird skated out onto the ice, followed by Bert and Ernie. The high-pitched roar of approval exceeded the volume of screams that once greeted the Fab Four from Liverpool. It was deafening, and my kids were hoarse the following day. The only regret was a moment featuring Bert and Ernie taking the children in the front rows for a ride on a train. Kids in the upper seat felt excluded, but that didn’t detract from the fact that if Big Bird were running for President and preschoolers could vote, Big Bird would have taken the White house. Even without Spinney, Big Bird had charisma.
The children from Mama Yoyo’s day care are now in their 40s, but I remember them: Dylan, David, Matt, Pee-Wee, Joshua, Natalie and Jenny, among others, all with their distinct personalities. I’m sure they remember Big Bird as much as I do, and because of Caroll Spinney, Big Bird will continue to instruct and entertain children.
Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.