Big Bird has left the neighborhood. Or at least the puppeteer who brought the iconic role to life is leaving the cozy Astoria, New York, set of “Sesame Street.” As Laurel Wamsley at NPR reports, 84-year-old Caroll Spinney—the voice and hands behind the butter yellow anthropomorphic canary and the loveable curmudgeon Oscar the Grouch—is retiring, and he recorded his final lines for the show this week.
Spinney has been on the defining children’s education program since its debut in 1969, and he was one of the few original members of the cast still left on the show. The puppeteer had stopped wearing the unwieldy Big Bird suit a few years back, when he began experiencing balance problems, but continued to voice the character (whose voice is slightly higher than Spinney’s own). With the 50th anniversary of the series drawing ever nearer, however, he decided it was time to leave that job to others, as well. Puppeteer Matt Vogel, who has been Spinney’s apprentice since 1996, will now assume the feathers of Big Bird. Eric Jacobson, another puppeteer on the show, will adopt the suitably grumpy timbre of Oscar the Grouch.
Filling Spinney’s truly enormous shoes (the 6-year-old bird, alone, is over 8 feet tall) will not be easy. “Since 1969, Caroll’s kind and loving view of the world has helped shape and define this institution,” Jeffrey D. Dunn, Sesame Workshop’s president and CEO, says in a press release. “ [He] gave something truly special to the world.”
Spinney has been putting on performances since he was a child growing up in the 1930s. He even used some of the money he earned from early puppeteering shows to put himself through college. After a stint in the Air Force, he set out to become a true puppet master. Though he crossed paths with Muppet founder Jim Henson in the early 1960s, Spinney tells Dave Itzkoff at The New York Times that it wasn’t until 1969 that the two began to collaborate. Henson watched an ambitious performance by Spinney at a Salt Lake City puppeteering festival that fell apart. Henson told him he appreciated the effort and invited him to join the new children’s program he was putting together, something that Spinney, in a video, likens to being asked to join the Beatles.
Spinney was Big Bird from the beginning, and he quickly homed in on the bird’s true self. In Big Bird’s first iteration, he was presented as a rube from the country. After a few episodes, Spinney suggested that the giant bird should be allowed to be more childlike, and that moment birthed the naïve, big-hearted character, who could learn along with the children tuning into the program. That stroke of genius turned Big Bird into beating heart of “Sesame Street,” a surrogate and companion for all the young people learning their letters and numbers along with him.
“Big Bird has always had the biggest heart on ‘Sesame Street,’ and that’s Caroll’s gift to us,” Dunn tells Itzkoff. “I think it’s fair to say that Caroll’s view of the world and how we should treat each other has shaped and defined our organization.”
Playing such a physically large bird for all those years came with its own very specific set of challenges. Spinney explained to NPR in a 2003 interview that to portray Big Bird he wore the huge bird suit and controlled the head by holding his hand above his head. Inside the suit was a little monitor that helped him make sure the bird was looking in the right direction. To walk, there were a couple feathers Velcroed on the chest he could remove to get a better view. Despite the difficulty, Spinney got pretty good at controlling the puppet, which starred in his own movies, including Follow That Bird and even ran atop the Great Wall of China in another special.
Oscar the Grouch, Caroll’s other major role, is the complete opposite of Big Bird. Skeptical, grumpy and often self-centered, as Karen Zraick at The New York Times observes, the green, trashcan-dwelling monster gives children insight into negative emotions, conflict and how to deal with different points of view. Zraick reports that Spinney based Oscar on a surly cab driver he once rode with in the Bronx who wouldn’t stop complaining about the mayor.
While Spinney and his characters gave so much to generations of children, the puppets affected the puppeteer as well. “Before I came to ‘Sesame Street,’ I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important. Big Bird helped me find my purpose,” he says in the release. “Even as I step down from my roles, I feel I will always be Big Bird. And even Oscar, once in a while! They have given me great joy, led me to my true calling – and my wonderful wife! – and created a lifetime of memories that I will cherish forever.”