Sunday morning I was saddened and shocked to learn of the unexpected passing of Caroll Spinney, that dear absolute giant from the original cast of TV’s Sesame Street who brought to life two of that avenue’s great yet opposite creations: the childlike Big Bird, patron saint of friendly innocents; and the ornery Oscar the Grouch, a benign symbol of our selfish dark sides. He threw himself into both roles with gusto and aplomb for decades, and left his imprint on millions of kiddos.
The sad news was handed down from Sesame Street themselves:
Caroll Spinney, the legendary puppeteer behind beloved Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, died today, December 8th 2019, at age 85 at his home in Connecticut, after living with Dystonia for some time.
Caroll was an artistic genius whose kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define Sesame Street from its earliest days in 1969 through five decades, and his legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending. His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to generations of children and countless fans of all ages around the world, and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while…
…and the kind words continue on their site, not to mention all over the internet right now.
My wife Anne and I had the sincere pleasure of meeting Mr. Spinney when he visited an Indianapolis convention one ugly winter in 2015:
[Spinney] signed his 8×10 photo three times: once as himself, and once on behalf of each character. If you bought a copy of his autobiography at the table, he also sketched a little bird inside. Although Indianapolis temperatures were in the teens and winds were blustery to a painful degree, he and his wife were grateful to have escaped from the east-coast blizzard apocalypse for a few days.
He retired from actively suiting up as Big Bird a few years ago, but continued to provide his distinctive voice to the show until his full retirement in October 2018. He appeared for grateful fans at a few cons after our encounter with him, but his final scheduled appearances for 2019 had been canceled a while back when health became an issue.
That feathery mantle has since been passed on, but the memories and the lessons will be cherished ever after.