The following article appeared in the BDN on Saturday, May 24, 1980. It was the interview for this article that started a nearly 40-year relationship between Caroll Spinney, who died Sunday after a career playing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street,” and Shaw.
PORTLAND, Maine — “Now who did you wish to speak with?” asks the stately gentleman with the flowing white beard. “Mr. Caroll Spinney or Big Bird?”
“Well, ah, Mr. Sp … ah, I mean Big B —-, ummm … ”
“Egads,” I muttered. “Is it going to be one of those interviews — with strings attached?”
But then the Santa Claus type tosses his head back, laughs heartily and says he is only teasing; that I can speak to whomever I wish.
He introduces himself as Kermit Love of the “Sesame Street” family, the phenomenally successful public TV program that began in 1969 and still ranks high on the popularity list of many an American pre-schooler.
Love has good reason to be protective of “The Bird,” for it was he who built and helped create the eight-foot, two-inch puppet, and he who cares for it both at home on Sesame Street in New York, and during Bird Bird’s appearances around the world with symphony orchestras. Today, May 3, Caroll Spinney — the man inside the bird — will perform for the first time with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, in a special children’s concert.
It will be one of only about six symphony appearances he agrees to each year.
“We’ve had a lot of interesting things — they tried to book other things and cancel this, and I said this is the one show that I did not want to cancel,” Caroll Spinney enthuses during a pre-concert interview at the Cumberland County Civic Center. “To me, even though I’m not from Maine, I feel like I’m a Maineiac. We have a lot of family here and they’re coming to the show. I’ve got to come up with 22 tickets.”
Although the silver-haired, 46-year-old Spinney has never lived in Maine, many Mainers go to great lengths to believe he is a native. Even the Portland Symphony’s promotional material claimed Spinney as a native of Eastport. His 78-year-old father, Chester, lived there as a younger man, but never his son.
In reality a native of Waltham, Massachusetts, Spinney took up puppetry at age 8, and has never lost interest. In the late 1960s his star rose when his path crossed Jim Henson’s, a contemporary, and the guiding force behind the Muppets.
“I created the character of Big Bird,” Spinney explains. “There were sort of three people involved, because Jim Henson said, ‘Let there be a character who I shall name Big Bird.’ And then Kermit Love was involved (no connection with the puppet frog). The third participant in the creation was a respected puppet builder who built the four-pound head of the Bird, and who died last year.
“They had made three pilot tapes [for ‘Sesame Street’],” Spinney continues, “and we decided that the show needed a little more fantasy than it had, because there were just humans on the street. Then they would cut to, say, Ernie and Burt.
“But any time they went to the street, it suddenly left that fantasy thing that puppets and cartoons bring, and so it would suddenly seem a little too much like ‘What is this street doing here?’ — so Jim suggested they create a couple of street characters.”
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Those characters, of course, are the irrepressible Bird, and another Spinney creation, Oscar the Grouch, the green curmudgeon who dwells inside a trash can and delights in putting down Big Bird.
“I see the Bird as a 6-year-old boy,” Spinney explains. “Now he can read, whereas for the first four or five years he couldn’t read. Once in a while he would retrogress in the script where he suddenly couldn’t even write his name any more, and previously had been writing poems. Those kinds of things would really cause me to gnash my teeth because I like a steady history.
“He’s the only character who gets to play a true child on the show. The children who you see on the show aren’t actors so they just almost decorate the place. They don’t have any lines. We tried a professional actor child and, funny, he didn’t do any better than the other children. Part of it is, we don’t know how to use the children.
“We have a lot to learn on the show,” Spinney laughs. “In another 10 or 20 years, we’ll get it together!”
At first noticeably self-effacing, Spinney opens up as the conversation progresses. Perhaps there is a stereotype of the puppeteer as a shy sort who comes out of his shell through a puppet persona. Are all puppeteers introverted?
“I think they all are,” Spinney says. “Well, a couple aren’t, but in some ways, I would say the majority are, because certainly Jim Henson is very … kind of shy. But give him a puppet and anyone that comes to mind is able to come through.”
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“Come on, come on. Reach, reach! There we are.”
Kermit Love suddenly appears with the massive Big Bird head. It is all beak, eyes and dyed yellow turkey feathers. He hands it to Spinney, who hoists it high over his head in his right arm. The transformation is immediate.
“Good grief, this is embarrassing,” the bird complains. “Where’s my body?”
“Your body’s in the kitchen, locked up,” Love says dryly.
“I ain’t got no body, I’m nobody’s body now!” Big Bird wails.
Spinney, as the Bird, is remarkably quicker-witted than Spinney as Spinney. The same holds true for Oscar the Grouch
“It’s kind of fun to play a cantankerous character,” Spinney says. “I’m a little shy with people, but with Oscar — shy isn’t his problem. It’s fun to play nasty because everyone knows you’re only kidding anyway. So you can get to say thoughts that I wasn’t even aware had occurred to me, because once I start computing the character through Oscar’s point of view, incredible wise cracks come to me.”
The Bird continues to eyeball this reporter, Kermit Love and others in the room. But then, the bombshell hits. What does the Bird think of the KGB Chicken, an overgrown piece of cheerleading poultry who created such a stir in West Coast football stadiums, and in courtrooms as a result of contractual difficulties?
“The Kremlin has a chicken?” is the Bird’s jocular reply.
“We don’t talk about that,” is Love’s more pointed answer. He pouts, acting as though someone has just uttered an obscenity.
“Poor Bird has been blamed for some of the things that he does,” Spinney says quietly. “It’s appalling to me that everybody thinks that every chicken suit is Big Bird.
“Someone came up to me and said, ‘I really like your character, but you really ruined that Portland game!’ I said, “What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘They weren’t even at half-time and you came out and actually influenced a touchdown!’
“And I said, ‘Hey, don’t pin that rap on me!’”
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The phone at the Spinney family home in Woodstock, Connecticut, rings often, perhaps with the “Sesame Street” crew in New York sounding out the puppeteer about an appearance with another symphony orchestra.
“It’s like Batman. I get a phone call and they say, ‘I got a job for you,’ Spinney jokes.
“But one of the great calls came last summer. ‘We’ve got a good one for you. Bob Hope wants you.’ (This was the second time Spinney was to work with the comedian.) They said, ‘Guess where?’
“And I said, Ahhhhhhhh.”
“It was like being in a road movie. Hope is such a wit. He’d have a line like that. I had the impression before that he had to have cue cards, but not at all.
“The Chinese went crazy for the Bird, despite the fact that the only performer with the troupe familiar to the Chinese was dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.
“Hope’s desire was to walk Big Bird and himself down the main street of Peking, which we did. Within one minute we had over 10,000 people jammed, because the bicycles would literally bring that many in one minute, and being 8 feet tall, you cannot be upstaged!”
Kermit Love appears again, ushering Spinney out of the room for a rehearsal.
Spying a tiny fan trailing Spinney out of the office, Love says coyly, “You know a secret. Don’t let it out.”
She wouldn’t dare.