Tough Pig Incredible Journey

Sunday, January 21, 2007


By JAMES SULLIVAN January 21, 2007
If the voice of Big Bird, as welcoming as the nicest kid on your first day of kindergarten, is instantly familiar to generations of Sesame Street viewers, it was not always so. Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer from Massachusetts who has spent almost four decades inside the towering yellow costume, says the character’s original voice was not gentle and curious but laughably dopey, like an overgrown yokel, a big galoot. It was, Spinney notes with amusement, alarmingly like the voice of a certain purple dinosaur whose name shall be mentioned under no circumstances on the show’s set.
Big Bird’s dum-dum voice didn’t last long. During the show’s inaugural season in 1969, Spinney persuaded Jim Henson, the late Muppets creator, that the bird should think and act more like its young audience. Spinney has imagined his fine-feathered alter ego as an eager-to-learn 6-year-old ever since.
Even out of costume, Spinney, still spry at 73, exudes a sense of youthfulness. He recently wrapped the show’s 38th season and says he has no immediate plans to step aside as Big Bird. But he admits the ungainly, claustrophobic costume is physically taxing, and he has quietly begun scaling back on his Bird duties, preparing for an inevitable replacement. Versatile puppeteer Matt Vogel, Spinney’s understudy, now stands in during the taping of selected segments and for some public appearances.
Spinney – whose silvery Vandyke adds to his air of refinement and whose voice has a hint of the nasality that makes Big Bird’s so distinctive – says Vogel is a natural: Besides the fact that he moves well in the tricky costume, his surname is the German word for bird. Still, he adds, “I’d like to do it as long as I can hold the bird’s head up.” It’s not an easy task. The head weighs 6 pounds and is controlled by Spinney’s right arm from inside the suit. The creature stands 8 foot 2 overall and is rigged with a tiny monitor inside so the puppeteer can see how the character appears on camera.
On a recent afternoon at the Sesame Street studio in Queens, Spinney is inhabiting his other alter ego: Oscar the Grouch. During a break in taping, two wide-eyed schoolgirls visiting the set ask to have their picture taken with the mangy green puppet. “What are you doing after the show?” teases Oscar in his sandpaper gargle. The gruff character, patterned after a flinty New York cabbie Spinney flagged down before a meeting with Henson, lets Spinney blow off some of the steam that inevitably builds up by playing the relentlessly good-natured Big Bird.
It’s also a little more reflective of Spinney’s own childhood. His father, Spinney recalls, could be an irascible, sometimes frightening figure, and the puppeteer vowed at an early age to keep his own composure. “My father was a lovely old man, but when he was younger, it was terrible,” he says, taking lunch in his hotellike dressing room, where Big Bird’s ribbed leggings and floppy orange feet hang out of a bureau drawer.
When Spinney was 6, the family moved from Waltham to Acton. At a rummage sale, he bought a monkey puppet for a nickel. Money was scarce during wartime, he recalls. The resourceful youngster made a sign promoting a puppet show in the family barn. He charged 2 cents, and 16 people came. “It was 9 cents to go to the movies in Maynard,” he says. “I said, ‘Boy, I’m in the big time.’ ” (Today, Spinney and his wife, Debra, live on a sprawling estate in northern Connecticut and keep a tiny apartment in New York when Sesame Street is in production.)
He produced amateur puppet shows throughout his teen years, in part to raise money for tuition to art school. That dream was cut short by military service during the Korean War. Stationed in Las Vegas, where he made drawings of bombs for training manuals and trained pilots on how to attack, Spinney worked his way onto local TV with a show of his own called Rascal Rabbit. Back in Boston, he appeared on a summer replacement series called Judy and Goggle. The show wasn’t picked up for the fall, but Spinney would join the local version of Bozo’s Big Top, featuring Frank Avruch as the famous clown. Throughout the 1960s, Spinney created a menagerie of popular characters, including Mr. Lion, Picklepuss, and Kookie, the boxing kangaroo. “He was extremely talented,” recalls Avruch, talking about both Spinney’s puppetry and his artwork. “I still have some of his drawings. . . . I tell people, ‘Big Bird did this.’ ”
As Spinney honed his craft at various puppetry festivals, he became smitten with Henson’s Muppets, which by the mid-1960s were already making regular appearances on network variety shows. When Henson asked Spinney to join his new venture with the Children’s Television Workshop – the two had talked years earlier about working together – he jumped at the chance.
Back on the present-day Sesame Street set, Spinney, wearing jeans, black suede shoes, and a brightly striped Oxford shirt, crowds behind Oscar’s trash can with puppeteer Jim Martin, who will handle the Grouch’s right hand. (Spinney animates the left hand, mouth, eyebrows, and voice.) Biding time, Spinney grooms the 36-year-old puppet with his fingers, pulling off a little snarl of green yarn.
For episode 4,143, Oscar is narrating a fairy tale called “Sleeping Grouchy,” featuring Grungetta as the title character and Elmo as a wizard trying to wake her. Elmo’s puppeteer, Kevin Clash, is having difficulty pronouncing a word, and the cast is amused by his comic frustration.
“Elmo does a lot of very funny things,” says Spinney, chuckling as he watches takes on a monitor. He should know: Elmo actually originated in the early 1970s as Baby Monster – played by Spinney. In that incarnation, the character didn’t last long. But the ones that did became two of the most famous characters in all of make-believe. “It’s marvelous to know that hundreds of millions of children know Big Bird and Oscar,” Spinney says. “It feels like that’s what my life work was intended to be.”


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