For just over half a century now, the iconic children’s educational show “Sesame Street” brought fun and taught letters, numbers and more to many children all over the world. Such early education on TV was made fun and enjoyable by the program’s cast of live actors and Muppets, puppet characters ranging from small ones operated by hand from behind and under walls and cover, to life-sized mascot suits manipulated by one or more people. The most famous example of the latter type of Muppet is Big Bird, the 8-foot tall anthropomorphic canary famously portrayed by Muppeteer Carroll Spinney, who unfortunately passed away just this Sunday.
According to USA Today Carroll Spinney, longtime puppeteer for the “Sesame Street” mascot character Big Bird, died at his Connecticut residence this past December 8 at the age of 85 according to an official press release of the Sesame Workshop. During his later years, Spinney has been living with the neurological movement disorder of dystonia, which triggers random muscle contractions resulting in twisting movements or uncomfortable fixed postures. While the veteran Muppeteer managed to stay on the job as Big Bird (alternating with others), he officially retired from the role in 2018 after recording episodes for the 50th season of “Sesame Street” which aired 2019.
Joan Ganz Cooney, who co-founded “Sesame Street” back in 1969, noted that Spinney made “countless contributions” to the decades-long development and evolution of the children’s program, as he had been on board with the production from the start. “He not only gave us Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, he gave so much of himself as well,” says Cooney. “We at Sesame Workshop mourn his passing and feel an immense gratitude for all he has given to Sesame Street and to children around the world.”
It was Carroll Spinney’s portrayal that cemented the characterization of Big Bird for “Sesame Street.” Despite being eight feet tall (achieved by Spinney raising his right hand over his head to manipulate Big Bird’s head, beak and neck) the character is both childlike and innocent, eager to learn more about the world around him and always making friends with people he meets. Spinney was full performer for Big Bird until 2015, when he was diagnosed with dystonia. From that point on, he alternated with puppeteer Matt Fogel in voicing the character. Spinney received puppet mentoring from Muppets creator Jim Henson, with the two becoming close friends until Henson’s 1990 death.
“I always thought, how fortunate for me that I got to play the two best Muppets?” Spinney remarked during his 2018 retirement announcement. “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 is among the honorees for the 2019 Kennedy Center Honors, held Sunday, the night of his passing.
Image courtesy of CNN