Caroll Spinney has spent the last 49 years playing around—as a puppeteer. You’ve probably seen his work. Until last fall, Spinney was the body and voice of Big Bird on Sesame Street.
Caroll Edwin Spinney (so named because he was born the day after Christmas) played with puppets from an early age. Monkey puppets, snake puppets—Spinney puppeteered through childhood, adolescence, and right into adulthood. His early puppet characters included Kookie Kangaroo, Mr. Lion, and two puppet cats, Picklepuss and Pop.
As a 29-year-old, Spinney met Jim Henson at a puppeteering festival. Henson and a combination marionette/puppet named Kermit the Frog were gaining attention on talk shows and in commercials. Henson wanted to “talk about the Muppets” with Spinney. But it would be seven more years before Spinney would join Henson’s nationally successful group of Muppeteers.
From Sesame Street’s beginning in 1969, Spinney operated and did the voice for the grumbling, green, trash-loving Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird, the kind yet goofy yellow giant.
Big Bird often fumbled with communicating ideas on Sesame Street. Part of his charm was that he was sometimes misunderstood. But the character usually offered this advice: “If everyone in the whole wide world makes mistakes, then why can’t you?”
Making mistakes is part of being human. It’s good counsel both to “work heartily, as for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23) and “[cast] all your anxieties on Him.” (1 Peter 5:7)
Operating an eight-foot two-inch tall bright yellow canary isn’t easy. Spinney extended his right arm over his head to move Big Bird’s head and neck. His left hand operated the left wing. The right wing dangled from a fishing line running through a loop in Big Bird’s neck. Using a line attached to his left wrist, Spinney moved both wings. Most of the time, Spinney “saw” via a camera mounted on his chest.
Spinney once described his Big Bird experience as “a lot like growing up to be Mickey Mouse . . . only taller!”
Eventually, the physical requirements of performing became too difficult for the 84-year-old Spinney. He developed problems with his balance. He stopped doing the puppeteering for Big Bird in 2015. When he retired in October, he was doing only voices.
An understudy now performs as Big Bird. So the work Spinney began will continue. In describing his time as one of everyone’s favorite puppets, Spinney once said, “I would really be doing something right, perhaps even important, if I was bringing even a little more compassion into the world through Big Bird.”