After 37 years at 123 Sesame Street, muppeteer not ready to retire

If Caroll Spinney walks down the streets of Gotham, he’s never recognized. Never mind that his television characters have been cultural icons for nearly four decades.

“There’s the advantage of being inside a puppet and not being seen personally,” says Spinney, who’s better known as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on PBS’ “Sesame Street.” “I look younger than my age (72), but I don’t think I could have kept the same job and been the same characters otherwise.”

Spinney won’t be hidden by yellow feathers or green fur when he receives the Lifetime Achievement Award April 28 at the Daytime Emmys.

Spinney has been on television since the medium’s early days. He created “Rascal Rabbit,” a puppet show for kids, at KLAS-TV in Las Vegas in 1955. And after a stint in the Air Force, he landed in Boston and joined singer Judy Valentine for “The Judy and Goggle Show.”

The two were offered a weekly spot on the popular “Bozo’s Big Top,” where Spinney stayed for a decade doing hand puppets and nine different walkabout characters.

In 1969 came the biggest break of his career, which Spinney chronicles in his 2003 book, “The Wisdom of Big Bird.” After staging a show during a national puppetry festival in Salt Lake City, a presentation Spinney himself describes as a “disaster,” Muppets creator Jim Henson came backstage and talked to him about joining the troupe.

“To me,” Spinney says, “it would be like, if I was a good singer, and Frank Sinatra said, ‘I’d like you to be my backup singer.’ That would be a good equivalent.”

Henson and Muppeteer Frank Oz had already created two of the residents living on “Sesame Street” (Bert and Ernie) and Henson tapped Spinney to perform two new characters, a large bird and a trash can-dwelling grouch.

Henson envisioned Big Bird as a goofy character that sounded like Mortimer Snerd, one of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s sidekicks. But Spinney led the 8-foot, 2-inch-tall bird in a different direction shortly after the show debuted.

“A script came along where he saw these children going into a day-care center and it looked like fun but he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t join them,” Spinney says. “When I read the script, I thought, ‘Why would the village idiot — and that wasn’t a politically correct term — want to go to day care?’ And I said, ‘Let’s make sure the audience knows that he’s a kid.’ That way he could go to day care and play with the other kids. Before then he really had no important place in the education element of the show.”

Being an integral part of both of the skein’s main goals — to educate and entertain — is just as important to Spinney as it is to connect with the show’s core aud, young kids and their parents.

“The one quality Carroll has (above all else) as a performer is there’s a vulnerability in the performance of both of his characters, as different as they are,” says “Sesame Street” exec producer Carol-Lynn Parente. “To be able to show that vulnerability in performance is something that you can’t teach.

“In the industry of performing, puppeteers get a bad rap in that people sometimes don’t view them as actors,” she adds. “That’s really misguided because what Tom Hanks and other actors have going for them is the ability to be expressive and use nonverbal communication. When you’re a puppeteer, you really have to know the art of manipulating a puppet that does not quite have such performance ability. It’s felt, you know? It’s a little felt and feathers and some fur, and out of that they create performance, emotions and vulnerability, and that’s a real science and art that very few people are good at.”

After 37 years of working at 123 Sesame Street, Spinney is not ready to call it a career.

“When I no longer can hold that bird’s head up where it belongs, then I guess I’ll have to say, ‘Hasta la vista,'” he observes. “It’s just so much of a joy to do it. It’s physically demanding, which keeps me in good shape. I’m not one who adores doing exercise, but the last thing I want to do at this point is retire.”

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