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What would a perfect day look like for "Sesame Street's" Oscar the Grouch?
"Well," said Caroll Spinney in a recent telephone interview, "it would be raining. And he would like it greatly if people didn't say hello."
Not only that, but Oscar would express himself in the gruff, ready-to-rumble voice of a 1960s-era New York City cabby.
Spinney ought to know. After all, he IS Oscar. Or at least he's the remarkable puppeteer behind Oscar the Grouch. And yes. Spinney modeled Oscar's voice after a New York cabby, who greeted him with a "Where to, Mac?" and then grumbled about Mayor John Lindsay throughout the entire trip.
As it turns out, Spinney was literally on his way to "Sesame Street" during that same cab ride to audition for a role on the new PBS children's program. Spinney channeled the cabby when he performed in front of Jim Henson and landed the part.
But as famous as Sesame Street's lovable grouch is (Yes, Oscar, you ARE lovable, so just go ahead and own it!), the creation of big-hearted Big Bird is Caroll Spinney's crowning achievement. For more than 40 years, Spinney has given his soul over to creating one of the most famous characters on the planet a journey reflected in the documentary "I Am Big Bird."
Spinney, along with his wife, Debra, and a special unidentified guest (hint: He's green and grumpy), will be in Salt Lake City for a screening of the documentary at Kingsbury Hall on Friday, Jan. 29, at 7:30 p.m. The evening, sponsored by UtahPresents, will be hosted by KUED's Ken Verdoia.
The 82-year-old Spinney is excited to return to Salt Lake City because this is the place (!) where he first came to the attention of a certain Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. Both men were attendees at a puppet festival here in 1969. Impressed with Spinney's ability to improvise under difficult circumstances, Henson invited him to try out for "Sesame Street" and the rest, as they say, is history.
The documentary, which consists of interviews, home movies, footage from the "Sesame Street" set and snippets of Spinney's animation work, examines his development as an artist, an icon and a man. One of the film's most touching moments comes when he is able to let go of his anger toward the father who had been abusive toward Spinney the young boy. It also captures the deep and abiding affection between the performer and his wife. As Spinney says, "I Am Big Bird" is nothing if not a love story.
After the documentary, which runs for 90 minutes, Spinney will field questions from the audience, because when it comes to Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, people are naturally curious. Does Spinney's arm ever get tired holding up Big Bird's head? How heavy is the costume? How many yellow feathers are on the costume anyway? Is the costume hot to wear? How does Spinney see what he's doing? How do Oscar and Big Bird manage to carry on a conversation in the same room? Is Big Bird's BFF (Snuffy) real or imaginary? Is Oscar happy living in a recycling bin instead of a garbage can these days? ("Yes," Spinney reports. "Oscar always considered himself a recycler anyway.")
As Debra Spinney says, there probably isn't a question that her husband hasn't been asked. Big Bird is just that beloved. Over the years, children have reached out to him with letters. One of Spinney's favorites came from a young fan who wrote, "Dear Big Bird, you are my best friend. Please come and play with me. How about next Thursday?"
What is it precisely about Big Bird that makes him so endearing? Spinney attributes that popularity to the character's childlike qualities. In spite of his imposing stature 8-feet-2, even taller on roller skates Spinney says Big Bird is a "happy-go-lucky" kid at heart. And because he is a happy-go-lucky kid, Big Bird can respond with eternally amazed delight to all the concepts the show teaches.
Spinney himself played a crucial role in developing Big Bird's sweet-natured personality. He recalls that the show's creators initially "wanted Big Bird to be a yokel" along the lines of the Disney character Goofy or Edgar Bergen's Mortimer Snerd. But early on Spinney saw the possibility for Big Bird to be something else a wide-eyed innocent who wants to be liked, a creature with something of Spinney's own deep kindness. Big Bird makes children feel safe, and they adore him for it.
Big Bird is so beloved, in fact, that he was invited to go up on the space shuttle Challenger. Officials at NASA were concerned that children of the 1980s were not as interested in space exploration as their baby boomer parents had been, and so Big Bird was invited for a ride-along in an effort to educate and excite a new generation. Spinney was due to start astronaut training when NASA decided the Big Bird puppet was too unwieldy to go on board. The invitation was extended, instead, to a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe. The memory of the explosion that killed all seven of the Challenger crewmembers deeply saddens Spinney to this day.
While Big Bird is recognized everywhere he goes, Spinney himself is not, which puts him in the unique position of simultaneously being one of the world's most and least recognized celebrities. He recalls the Emmy Awards program in 2006 when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award but was not invited up to the stage for an acceptance speech. The show's producers had determined that no one would recognize him out of costume anyway, so why bother? No doubt those same producers were surprised when the audience gave Spinney a standing ovation that lasted for more than two minutes.
Because his voice has not changed with age, Spinney still operates Big Bird and plans to continue performing for as long as he can. But as the physical demands of the job become more difficult, he delegates some of the performances to puppeteer Matt Vogel, a Big Bird "apprentice" whom Spinney personally selected to keep the character moving forward.
Has the show changed over the years? Of course, Spinney says. For one thing, "Sesame Street" has moved to HBO. Production values are more sophisticated, and the show is more tightly scripted, allowing for fewer opportunities to ad-lib and improvise. But the big yellow bird at the center of it all?
He remains the same.
Big Bird on campus
"Sesame Street" puppeteer Caroll Spinney will answer questions after a screening of the 2014 documentary "I Am Big Bird."
When • Friday, Jan. 29, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Kingsbury Hall, 1395 Presidents Circle on the University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $19-$29; $5 for U. students, $10 non-U. students; utahpresents.org or 801-581-7100