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As tributes poured in from around the world for Caroll Spinney, the man who brought Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch alive for nearly 50 years and who died on Sunday, one Bangor resident recalled his very personal connection to the beloved puppeteer.
Local historian and former Bangor Daily News writer and editorial page assistant Dick Shaw met Spinney in 1980, while writing a profile of him for the BDN ahead of Spinney’s performance as Big Bird with the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Shaw met Spinney after the concert, and the two hit it off, especially when Shaw learned of Spinney’s deep connection to Maine.
“Caroll’s father and grandfather both grew up in Eastport, and he still has relatives that live there,” Shaw said. “I think he was a kind of honorary Mainer, even though he himself didn’t actually grow up in Maine.”
There was also an even deeper connection between the two, as it turned out. Shaw was good friends with a man named Jim Jollotta, who was the unofficial historian for the town of Eastport, much like how Shaw is the unofficial historian for Bangor. Jollotta was close friends with Caroll’s father, Chester, and Jollotta went to Spinney’s home in Connecticut each year to celebrate Christmas. Jollotta died in 1993.
After the interview, Shaw and Spinney kept in touch, developing a correspondence that stretched on for nearly 40 more years. From 1980 onward, Shaw was the recipient of Spinney’s yearly Christmas cards, drawn, painted and designed by Spinney himself, and each year featuring a fanciful depiction of Big Bird and the Grouch going on a holiday adventure or enjoying a Christmas evening together.
“I think, in many ways, Caroll was an eternal child. He never really grew up,” Shaw said. “And I think he was shy, essentially, even though what he did was so public. I think that’s one of the reasons we connected.”
In addition to the yearly cards, Spinney would every few years send Shaw a personal letter, complete with hand-drawn pictures of Big Bird and the Grouch, and reminiscing about his many visits to Maine over the years. In a letter from 1999, when Spinney had reached the traditional retirement age of 65, the famed puppeteer noted that he had no plans to retire — as he asked in the letter, “Who would quit the world’s greatest job?”
Spinney went on to perform as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for another 19 years after he wrote that letter, finally retiring in October 2018 at age 84. His last performances as the characters were recorded for the 50th season of “Sesame Street,” which aired this year.
On Sunday night, the creators of the show were awarded the Kennedy Center Honor, becoming the first television show to receive such an honor — on the same day that Spinney, originator of the show’s most famous character, passed away. Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster and Elmo all wore a single yellow feather on their lapels to commemorate his death.
Shaw, who now works for the city of Bangor, also sent Spinney Christmas cards each year, and he said he put his 2019 card in the mail on Sunday morning, only to find out just a few hours later that Spinney had died.
“Caroll loved Christmas because he was born the day after Christmas,” Shaw said. “He said his mother named him Caroll because of that. I think it’s a fitting bookend for him, in a lot of ways. He really was a very thoughtful man.”