One late November afternoon in 1969, a little girl named Sally was touring her new neighborhood along Sesame Street.
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All of the sudden, she heard garbage cans being knocked over.
“What’s that?” she said.
Through some alley doors, the source of the noise appears: a bumbling, 8-foot-tall yellow bird who, in addition to surprising Sally, changed children’s TV forever.
“I’m a very nervous bird,” the feathered giant said. “I nearly laid an egg on Sesame Street.”
Since that very first episode of “Sesame Street” in 1969, the lovable, endlessly childish and very large puppet has been a mainstay in the minds and hearts of children around the world (and their parents).
Throughout those nearly 50 years, Big Bird’s clumsy mannerisms and sweet voice have been essentially played by one man: Caroll Spinney. Now 84, Spinney is retiring from the show this week after appearing in several thousand episodes. And not just as Big Bird.
Spinney was also Oscar the Grouch, but let’s be honest about the nation’s puppet hierarchy: Only one of Jim Henson’s characters was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. It wasn’t the one who lived in a garbage can. Or the frog.
“Playing Big Bird," Spinney told the New York Times, "is one of the most joyous things of my life.”
In fact, other characters from “Sesame Street” and Henson’s other worlds — speaking for themselves, not their puppets — have always said it was difficult to figure out where Spinney and Big Bird diverged in character, particularly their childlike innocence.
“He is Big Bird,” Norman Stiles, one of the show’s writers, said about Spinney in “I am Big Bird,” a documentary. “There is no question in my mind that Big Bird is him and he is Big Bird. You look inside, and you’ll see feathers.”
And the memories of a childhood that wasn’t always happy.
Spinney grew up in Massachusetts. He was obsessed with puppets. In the documentary, Spinney remembered buying one for a nickel, then performing puppet shows. Ticket price: Two cents. His mother, an artist, wrote scripts for him. His father thought puppetry was silly and not a manly thing to aspire to.
When his father got violent, Spinney’s mother got in between them. She wore the bruises, not her son.
In high school, Spinney was an odd ball. He didn’t play sports. He spent a lot of time by himself — drawing, thinking up puppet shows. After graduating, to get away from his father, he joined the Air Force. When he finished, he did some TV work with puppets in Boston and then joined the cast of “Bozo the Clown.”
Spinney got his big break at a puppet convention in Utah. Henson, already famous for The Muppets, was in attendance. He invited Spinney to come work for him in New York. The late ’60s were a chaotic time in the United States but shows like “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers” were a source of cheerful, wholesome goodness in America’s living rooms.
At first, Big Bird’s character was actually an adult — a local village idiot. But later in the first season, Spinney and “Sesame Street” writers began imagining a different state of mind for Big Bird — a lighthearted, well-meaning, curious 6-year-old.
Stepping onto a horse the wrong way, and peering down at the tail, Big Bird says, “The horse’s head is completely missing!” He thought the alphabet was just one long word, leading his famous song, “ABC-DEF-GHI.” There was no moment that Big Bird couldn’t transform for a good chuckle.
Big Bird and Spinney became world famous, traveling to China with comedian Bob Hope and starring in movies. He even became a political pawn in 2012 when presidential candidate Mitt Romney said during a debate that he liked Big Bird, but would still cut public television funding. Big Bird then defended himself on “Saturday Night Live.”
Playing Big Bird all these years wasn’t easy for Spinney. The hours on the set kept him away from his family. And it was physically demanding work. With his right hand, using four fingers, Spinney controlled Big Bird’s mouth. He blinked his eyes with his pinky. His left hand controlled Big Bird’s wings through a pulley system.
Spinney couldn’t even see through Big Bird’s eyes. Instead, he watched his surroundings on a small TV monitor strapped to his chest. He pinned his script to Big Bird’s bodily cavity, but in reality the words — and feelings — were his own.
In 1990, after Henson died of pneumonia at 53, Big Bird performed at a memorial service in his honor.
Henson was Spinney’s hero. He had changed Spinney’s life. Now, somehow without crying, he had to sing Kermit’s song, “It’s not Easy Being Green.”
Big Bird was pitch perfect, even in the heartbreaking last lines:
When green is all there is to beIt could make you wonder why, but why wonder whyWonder, I am green and it'll do fine, it's beautifulAnd I think it’s what I want to be
Then he looked toward the heavens and said, “Thank you, Kermit.”
And thank you, Big Bird.
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