I liked what he was trying to do.
That’s what Jim Henson said to Caroll Spinney the first time they met. The story goes: Caroll and Jim met at the Puppeteers’ of America Festival in Utah in 1969, and Caroll’s puppetry act included some ambitious experimental techniques and projections, all of which went awry. Jim Henson saw through all of that and told Caroll, “I liked what you were trying to do.”
And then he asked him to be Big Bird.
We all know how the story went from there. Fifty full years of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, welcoming us to Sesame Street every day. From day 1, Caroll taught us everything: How to read and count, that it’s okay to make mistakes, lessons about what makes a home, and how big ol’ Santa gets down the chimney (okay, maybe he wasn’t quite so successful on that last one). He also taught us the pertinent lesson about how to deal with the loss of a loved one.
Big Bird famously showed us that a friend or a family member may pass away, and when they do, there will be others to help make us birdseed milkshakes or hold our hands when we cross the street. He taught us that sometimes these things happen “just because”. Looking back on the Sesame Street episode that dealt with Mr. Hooper’s passing almost exactly 36 years later, it’s almost as if Caroll is preparing us for his own departure.
Thanks to Caroll, we know that it’s okay to be sad. We know that someone else will be making our birdseed milkshakes – or in this case, someone else will be keeping the mantles of the Bird and the Grouch alive. And I’m sure the idea that he already gave us the tools to cope with this ordeal would’ve comforted him. After all, Caroll spent his whole career teaching us the fundamentals of life.
Almost five years ago, I had the rare opportunity to pitch an idea for a short YouTube video, parodying the soon-to-be-Best-Picture-winner Birdman. The title “Big Birdman” slipped out of my mouth easily, but the concept was clear in my mind. In the film, Michael Keaton’s character looks back on a career playing the role of a large cinematic bird. In “Big Birdman”, our own bird performer should similarly get the spotlight, and not his character.
I believe that any other tribute would’ve flipped those roles: Big Bird would’ve been the star, and Caroll would’ve made an Easter egg of a cameo. But Sesame Street‘s producers loved the idea of giving Caroll that rare spotlight, and we quickly wrote a script and put it into production. The whole thing was filmed during a single lunch break, and Caroll was ecstatic (yet still a little shy) to be front-and-center on camera.
Looking back, “Big Birdman” is one of the greatest things I’ve ever had the honor to work on. Sure, it’s cool that I helped make a Sesame-related thing, but it’s so much more than that. I played a small part in introducing new fans to Caroll Spinney. I pulled the strings (terrible pun intended) to guarantee that everyone would be looking at the guy with the gray beard and realizing that this man is responsible for millions of childhoods. If the video was successful, thousands upon thousands of people would know the name Caroll Spinney and they would silently thank him for his work.
I’m so very proud to have played that small role in what was a sliver of Caroll’s illustrious career. And I’m glad that I had the opportunity to give people a reason to celebrate Caroll, Big Bird, and Oscar for that brief moment in time.
Caroll gave so much to us. Not just Big Bird and Oscar, but friendship and a sense of belonging. I hope that wherever he is, he knows what sort of impact he made on this world, and that he unarguably made it a better place by being in it.
Jim Henson said it best: I liked what he was trying to do. I really, really did.
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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com