Caroll Spinney’s Bird Mitzvah

Published: May 21, 2018
Categories: Feature, Reports

On May 5, 2018, Caroll Spinney was honored by the Center for Puppetry Arts in their second “Puppets for Puppetry” event, held on The Jim Henson Company lot in Hollywood.

Muppet fans Ryan Sullivan, Kevin Hansen, Diane Bradley, Jill Amherst, Jack Thomas, and Eric Pahl were all in attendance, and they collaborated on this extremely thorough writeup.  It takes a village!  Thanks to the entire group for your contributions!

The show opens with Bill Barretta and Brian Henson performing a couple of familiar Henson Company characters, Bobby Vegan and Samson Knight. Seated at a table on one side of the stage, Samson is trying to convince Bobby they are going to have a good time at this event. It doesn’t help that Bobby has already had plenty to drink (surprise), and he also has no idea who Caroll Spinney is.

Some pleasant lounge music is playing in the background. On the other side of the stage, Paul Rudolph (Sesame Street’s vocal music director and husband of Leslie Carrara-Rudolph) is directing a trio that will provide intro and outro music throughout the night. Paul leads on vibraphone, with Matt Altmire on drums and Willie Etra on keyboards. As the music announces the first act, Bobby and Samson end their conversation. “Oh look, it’s starting, it’s starting!”

The first act is one that is regularly featured at Henson Company performances. As the video screens on either side of the stage remind us, “Java” was first performed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz in 1965. Here, the large Java puppet is being performed by Drew Massey and the small one by Colleen Smith. Staged simply on a raised wooden plank, the puppeteers are in full view. The video screens show what the performance would look like on television, with the puppeteers hidden out of frame. As the number progresses, a third performer comes from backstage to operate the fire extinguisher that provides the sketch’s trademark Muppet ending. The performance was done seamlessly and the 3 puppeteers nailed it.

Chris Hardwick takes the stage, welcomes everyone, and introduces himself as the night’s host. Bobby and Samson are still on stage, and Bobby is super excited to see Chris. Bobby wants to take a photo of him, but Chris takes this opportunity to announce that there’s no photos or video allowed. (The photos you see were taken illegally by very bad people who are really very sorry but just got excited.) Bobby and Chris get into a debate about whether Chris’ game show “The Wall” is really just Giant Plinko, and eventually Chris tells him that they need to keep the show going. “Oh, sorry, what are we thinking? Another drink and we’re all gettin’ a little spinny around here, right?”

Chris thanks everyone for coming and talks about the magic of puppetry. He mentions that we’re all here to support the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, and he introduces the Center’s founder and executive director Vince Anthony.

Vince thanks everyone, including the event’s sponsors: the Jim Henson Company (Lisa Henson, Nicole Goldman, and the entire Henson team), Sesame Workshop, Tyler Perry Studios (they bought a whole table for the event!), and Joan Ganz Cooney (who was there in spirit).

Vince says he first met Caroll at a puppetry festival in 1974. Caroll was performing his character Picklepuss, introducing every act at the week-long festival. Vince remembers being jealous of Caroll’s incredible puppeteering. “Wow, with that guy on stage what am I doing performing?” Shortly after, he gave up performing in order to create a place for puppeteers. He opened the Center for Puppetry Arts, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. He recalls asking Jim Henson to cut the ribbon for the Center’s opening. Jim’s response was “Kermit will be there. And maybe he’ll bring me along.” Vince says they now have between 500 and 600 of Jim’s puppets at the Center, and a large part of Spinney is there too. “Big Bird awaits.” If you haven’t been down to the Center for Puppetry Arts AND you’re mad you missed this event, why not check out Dragon Con this year – it’s in Atlanta and Caroll Spinney will be there! Along with a few other Sesame alum.

Vince then introduces Pam Severns, a puppeteer based in Los Angeles. She performs a piece titled “Bunny Love”, which is being made into a black-and-white 1920’s style film commissioned by Heather Henson’s Handmade Puppet Dreams. It contains no dialogue and features a cartoonish rabbit (with a bit of a crazed look) who is trying to win the affection of a woman but is regularly distracted by texts popping up on his phone. It’s hilarious.

A short video is shown, promoting the work of Sesame Workshop. Then Chris brings on Jeff Dunn, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop. Jeff speaks about Caroll: “Caroll Spinney is a giant in the history of television and the arts. It would be hard to overstate the amount of love that this man, and this bird, and this grouch have sent forth into the universe. I feel it here tonight, and I know that all of you do too. Caroll Spinney is a singular human being, which is not to say he’s done it all single-handedly. You know what they say: Behind every successful 8-foot tall bird is someone who supports, encourages, and advocates. So we celebrate Debi Spinney here tonight as well, who does all of those with great grace and a wonderful sense of humor. And it’s fitting that we are here for this tribute, on the Henson lot. There has never been a creative force quite like Jim Henson. We will always be grateful to him, and we at Sesame Workshop are fortunate to be able to carry on his creative legacy. Sesame Street, of course, was designed for one purpose, to educate. When Caroll Spinney brought to life the remarkable characters Jim Henson created, Caroll himself ended up being one of the world’s great teachers.”

The speech continues, but Jeff is interrupted by Grover (Eric Jacobson) who says he knows all about carols, as he regularly sings them at Christmas. Jeff corrects Grover, saying that he was talking about Caroll Spinney, but he then says that in some ways, Caroll actually is a Christmas “carol”. “The story goes that when he was born on Dec 26, his mother was so happy that she called him her ‘Christmas Carol.’”

He goes on telling of Caroll’s 9th Christmas, where he received his first puppets and puppet theater. “The whole world has been living in the ripples of that Christmas morning ever since.” Grover’s response: “I love a good Christmas story, and you tell the best! Now, can you tell the story about the tiny hippopotamus who lives in Santa’s beard?”

Chris introduces Rogue Artists Ensemble, who are (according to their website) “a collective of multi-disciplinary artists who create Hyper-theater, an innovative hybrid of theater traditions, puppetry, mask work, dance, music, and modern technology.” They perform an excerpt from their upcoming show “Wood Boy Dog Fish”, a modern, full-length retelling of Pinocchio. The scene we see is one in which Pinocchio first becomes animated, startling Geppetto. Even with no understanding of the world he has just entered, or even complete control of his own body, he is already quite mischievous. There were at least 4 puppeteers for the boy and a live actor for Geppetto. It was mysterious and captivating, making us all want to see more.

Next, a video overview of the Center for Puppetry Arts, highlighting their latest initiatives and programs. Apparently in August, the Center will open a new exhibit called Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal: World of Myth and Magic, celebrating the film’s 35th anniversary. As they did with Labyrinth, they will hold an accompanying Dark Crystal themed ball.

Chris declares that puppetry is meant to be seen, appreciated, and experienced, and he thanks HBO, PBS, Netflix, STX, and Disney for their support of the art of puppetry. “Somebody give Disney a break once in a while. That struggling little indie company.” Wocka Wocka.

Chris introduces Heather Henson as someone “who has been using her very unique design and performance styles to bring attention to real issues surrounding wildlife.” Heather, along with Henu Josephine Tarrant, performs an excerpt from “Ajijaak on Turtle Island”. It is the story of a young whooping crane who is separated from her family in a tar sands fire. She must make her first migration from Canada to the Gulf Coast on her own, finding her voice and a family through the interconnectedness of all of creation. It was beautiful.

Chris introduces the next segment: “Thank you so much for sticking around. We have a lot to talk about. There’s 50 years of Sesame Street to cover, and tonight we’re gonna have an all-star panel, including a mystery cast member you won’t wanna miss. I’m Chris Hardwick, and this is ‘Talking Street.’”

Chris, now as the host of “Talking Street”, introduces three legends of Sesame Street: Cookie Monster, The Count, and Bert (performed by David Rudman, Matt Vogel, and Eric Jacobson, with Jennifer Barnhart right-handing for Cookie Monster). Bert is dressed in a Batman costume (which appears to be the same one he wore for the Numeric Con episode of Sesame Street). Embarrassed that he’s the only one in costume, Bert explains that since Chris was moderating the panel he assumed they must be at Comic-Con. Chris asks Bert to say “I’m Batman” and it takes Bert a few tries to embrace the darkness and get the impression right. Every try was hilarious.

Chris asks his panel about what stands out in their memory after nearly 50 years of Sesame Street. Bert thinks either his paperclip collection or his bottle cap collection must be the highlight of the show’s run. The Count struggles to limit his answer to only one great moment. (Side note, if you’ve never seen Matt Vogel’s face when he performs the count, it’s hilarious. He’s so into the character.) And then Cookie Monster (what else) just eats the couch.

The next question comes from a (planted) audience member, asking Bert if he and Ernie were named after the characters in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, but Bert immediately interrupts him. “No! No! I don’t know how many times I have to say this, it’s just a coincidence.”

“Yeah, like me named Cookie Monster and me just happen to like cookies.” “And I am called the Count and I just happen to love to count.”

Bert says he is going to lose it if he hears that question one more time. Chris says they are going to take a question from a caller (commenting that is odd because the show isn’t being broadcast and there’s nothing in his ear). They take the call, and we hear Ernie’s (Peter Linz) voice: “Hi there, Chris. This is an anonymous caller. I have a question for Bert. Hey Bert, were you and Ernie named after the characters in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life?’”

To close the segment, Chris announces the dinner break. He thanks the volunteers at the event, and he reminds people to place their bids for the auction (which will close when dinner ends).

Bobby and Samson return to open the second half of the show. They remind us that donations are accepted, and envelopes have been provided in the programs. Bobby is quite inebriated now, and he accidentally pulls from his bag the money the two had been saving for a vacation to Tortola. Samson is surprised by this fabulous gesture, but Bobby realizes the mistake he has made. As Bobby tries to keep the money from slipping away, Chris enters. “Oh, look, here comes Mr. Plinko!”

Chris mentions that he won a Labyrinth poster in the auction, but he had to give up on bidding for the quilt because someone was really ferociously going after it. Some may be aware that the Muppet/Henson Workshop has a tradition of making quilts for special occasion.

In this case, a Big Bird and Oscar themed quilt was put together by thirteen workshop employees to be part of this charity auction for the Center for Puppetry Arts. Chris actually has the quilt in hand and goes on to say “I’m very excited and happy to tell you that this amazing quilt is a gift from Caroll Spinney’s wife, Debi, and the Sesame Workshop to you Caroll Spinney. You absolutely should have this quilt!” He then takes it down to Caroll’s table and presents it to him.

Debi, was amazingly excited and happy, the quilt was wrapped around Caroll for the rest of the night.

Chris then welcomes the musical guest, Jason Mraz, “a hat-wearing advocate for inclusion, equality, and joy.” Jason appears by himself, with his ukulele, on an elevated stage. He begins strumming as he introduces the first song.

“The Center for Puppetry Arts has made a huge difference in the lives of children and arts education, and Caroll has done his part, bringing peace and joy to children all over the world. But when I heard about Caroll and Debi’s beautiful relationship, I knew I needed to open with a love song. Celebrating forty-five years on the charts. This one goes out to you, Caroll and Debi.” Jason performs “I’m Yours”, which he ends by transitioning into the first two lines of the Sesame Street theme. (We may have sung along)

As Jason notes that the next song is one of his favorites from Sesame Street, Elmo bounces in. (Ryan Dillon, raises Elmo to Jason’s level from in front of the elevated stage.) Elmo explains that he also wants to do something special for Caroll. “Mr. Spinney taught Elmo that if he can use his mind and his heart that he can do anything he wants to do.”

“Okay, well that’s perfect because this song talks about that.”

“How convenient!” said Elmo.

The lounge trio joins in as Jason and Elmo sing “Believe in Yourself”.

Abby Cadabby (Leslie Carrara-Rudolph) enters as Jason starts talking about the next song:

“When they told me that Caroll’s favorite song was ‘Smile’, (Deb and Caroll both cheered at the mention of it) I knew we had to do it. And you know how serendipitous this is? Because this song was written by Mr. Charlie Chaplin one hundred years ago. So in honor of Caroll, and one hundred years in Chaplin Studios…” And the song begins. (Although the song wasn’t written one hundred years ago, the building of Chaplin Studios was in fact completed in 1918.)

As the final verse starts, there is a giant cheer as Big Bird appears for the first time (in his favorite tie), Elmo under his wing. When the song ends, Big Bird is left alone on stage as the others leave, and he thanks Jason for the performance. “Let’s hear it for Mr. Az!”

Big Bird was on stage – I had to sneak a quick picture without being super obvious. Big Bird kept calling Jason Mraz “Mr. Az.”

Big Bird then reads a poem that he has written for Caroll.

Roses are red, my feathers are yellow
There’s one special man who’s my favorite fellow
He taught me to sing, he taught me to skate
He taught me to care, and he sure draws great
He’s smart, and he’s thoughtful, he’s loving and clever
He’ll always be with me for now and forever
When I think of this man I feel love by the barrel
I think you all know this man’s name is Caroll!

Chris came out (grabbing a quick selfie with Big) and announces the next segment as “Great Moments in Spinney History!”, and Jack McBrayer steps up to the elevated stage in his finest lederhosen. In the style he’s generally known for, Jack portrays a naive Caroll Spinney.

In the first sketch, Caroll is approached by Bozo the Clown (a puppet performed by Joey Mazzarino). Bozo asks Caroll if he’s ever been in a full-body costume, and he replies with some reluctance, “I guess I could try it once.” He’s told he will be Kookie Kangaroo! And Mr. Lion! And Grandma Nellie! And Flip-Flop the Rag Doll! “I guess I can wear a costume for a little while. I wouldn’t want to make a habit out of it.”

Jack performs two more Great Moments, now having donned a Spinney-like goatee. These two tales are more familiar. One is the story of Caroll first meeting Jim Henson (a new Jim puppet performed by Eric Jacobson) after a less than perfect performance at a Puppeteers of America festival in Utah.

The other replays Caroll’s attempts to ask Debi out to dinner.  Entering the stage: A Debi Muppet, performed by Jennifer Barnhart! The audience gets quite a kick out of Debi, a lavender Anything Muppet with long, sandy hair and big glasses.

There are also (of course) some penguins.

Emilio Delgado is in the audience, and he stands up for some recognition when he is mentioned in one of the sketches., as he introduced Caroll to Deb. When the final Great Moment ends, he is brought up on stage and is given the mic. He enthusiastically recalls his first day on Sesame Street, his first scene (which was with Big Bird), and touring with Sesame Street Live. His closing words to Caroll: “My brother, it’s an honor to have worked with you all those years. And most of all that you were such a good friend to me. Thank you very much. And from everybody of the live cast, all of us people who are featherless and furless, we say ‘We love you. We love you.’”

So many cheers, so much clapping.

A short video plays, opening with a closeup on Mr. Snuffleupagus. “Hello, Bird. It’s me. I kinda thought we had a playdate now. Maybe I got the time wrong. Oh dear! Cause now I hear you’re in Los Angeles. That’s pretty far away, Bird. But it doesn’t matter how far away you go, I love you wherever you are, and I will wait for you right here until you come home to me. Yeah, right here.” The camera zooms out to bring a few other Sesame characters into frame, and Ernie speaks.

“Hey there, Caroll and Debi. We just wanted to let you guys know that we love you so very much, and we miss you, and more than anything we wish we could be where you are right now to celebrate the wonderful guy that you are. Isn’t that right everybody?” The camera continues to zoom out, revealing the performers and then the Sesame Street crew on the set cheering.

The video ends and we see two trash cans side by side on the stage. The lid on the first one flips open, and Oscar (Eric Jacobson) pops up and introduces himself. Then Bobby Moynihan blasts through the lid of the second can to play the role of Oscar’s grouchier uncle (ala his SNL character, Drunk Uncle). Bobby brings a great energy, and the two work well together, playing off of each other. They’re disgusted with the positivity of the event, and they demand equal time to talk about all the things they can’t stand about Caroll Spinney.

Bobby starts, “I cannot stand how beloved he is. I mean people actually like this guy. They tell him ‘Oh, Mr. Spinney, I grew up with you!’” “Oh, Mr. Spinney, you shaped my childhood!” “Oh, Mr. Spinney, you’re a living legend!” “Oh, Mr. Spinney, can we take a smellfie?” They’re also sick of hearing about Caroll and Debi’s relationship, and they try to ruin the evening with a poorly sung rendition of “I Love Trash” (with some altered lyrics).

His hair is all white, now there’s some on my couch
The man’s a good friend to each person and grouch
Yes, Caroll’s a legend, on that we can vouch
We love him and we love trash

The next act features another visitor from Sesame Street. Leslie Carrara-Rudolph is seated sideways to the audience, with one leg crossed over the other, and Abby Cadabby is sitting atop her knee. Abby speaks briefly about Caroll and Debi, the most magical people she knows. “They’re the fairy godparents to, well, any of us who’ve ever been near their bright, beautiful light. Hey, wait you’re near it right now! Everybody, bask in it!” Her words lead right into the song “Glory of Love”, with regular interjections to add a personal note or to lay out and bask in the light some more. At one point Leslie and Abby got choked up. (We talked to Leslie after the show and she said she didn’t want the song to end. She just wanted to keep “basking” in it while it was happening.)

Abby then introduces another magical person, Cheryl Henson. Cheryl remembers Jane Henson recognizing the need for Debi to start traveling with Caroll. And she tells of her memories of spending time at the amazing Spinney home, which included Christmas trains running around the rafters of one room and another room that was always set up to celebrate a birthday party. She also notes that around Sesame Street’s 25th year, Sesame Workshop started to wonder what they would do if Caroll were to stop performing. (This was about the same time that Caroll had discovered the joy of bungee jumping.)

“The Henson Company was given the assignment to find a backup for Big Bird”, Cheryl said, “Being a backup Big Bird for over 20 years while Caroll was happily continuing in the role could have been the road to ruin for many a man. But not for Matt. Matt grew to be a leader, to be a puppet captain, and to be a director on Sesame Street. He also performs some other characters who are very dear to my heart. So it is my pleasure tonight to introduce you to Matt Vogel.”

Matt approaches the podium and delivers his speech. “I am kind of an ornithologist, because I studied the biggest bird of all. He is 8 feet tall, he has huge orange feet, and if you look really deeply, you’ll find that this bird has the biggest heart of them all, in fact it’s a heart that’s 5 feet 9 inches tall, has white hair and goes by the name of Caroll Spinney”

He goes on to mention some of Caroll’s amazing ability to do anything, rattling off “He’s traveled the world, you’ve heard that he bungee jumped, and he’s even ridden a unicycle, while basically being blind-folded by a suit full of yellow feathers, please do not ask me ever to do that.”

Closing with: “Caroll has always treated me like a son. From the moment I stepped through the studio doors, Caroll literally took me under his wing and has taught me and supported me for the past two decades. Through all of this study I learned what it meant to be Big Bird. And because of Caroll, I also learned what it means to be a kind, loving human being. For that, I will forever be grateful. Thank you, Caroll. I love you.”

A video plays, with initial narration taken from Caroll’s 1971 appearance on “To Tell the Truth”. The video includes scenes with Big Bird and Oscar, some clips of Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Henson, Debi Spinney, and Matt Vogel talking about Caroll, and some words from Caroll himself.

After the video, Vince Anthony presents the 2018 Puppets for Puppetry statuette, (a 12-inch wired human form with an arm up, a tiny yellow feather has been placed inside the chest) and he and Matt Vogel go down to Caroll’s table to give it to him.

From his seat, Caroll speaks with some playfulness: “Thank you for this incredible evening. I’m wearing these dark glasses so you can’t see that I’m fighting sleep. Not because of the roaring show. It’s a wonderful show. I love everything that’s been said. Except for what I just said. So anyway, thank you Lisa Henson, all the Hensons. And Jim, who would’ve loved to have been here to see this tonight. He was a beautiful man, and I don’t know why the Lord needed him so early. He left far too soon. It must’ve been something special that he really needed him. Cause he was a great guy, and my heart still bleeds for him. [Singing] My heart yearns for him. Anyway… thank you everybody.”

Everybody stands and cheers, and as the applause goes on we hear Oscar’s voice: “Everybody have a rotten evening” And then, presumably directed at Matt: “I never liked you. Bye, what a rotten evening.” And Big Bird: “Bye everybody. Thank you.”

All of the night’s performers return to the stage for one final number, “Sing”. Among them, standing directly behind Matt Vogel, is Big Bird himself.

Click here to honor the biggest bird of all on the ToughPigs forum!

by Ryan Sullivan, Kevin Hansen, Diane Bradley, Jill Amherst, Jack Thomas, and Eric Pahl

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