Editorial: The things we learned from Big Bird

Posted 12/13/19

Caroll Spinney, the whole body puppeteer who brought Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life, died Sunday at age 85 in Connecticut.

Big Bird, like most six-year-olds, would …

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Editorial: The things we learned from Big Bird

Posted

Caroll Spinney, the whole body puppeteer who brought Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life, died Sunday at age 85 in Connecticut.

Big Bird, like most six-year-olds, would have been saddened and confused by this — he had trouble with the whole idea of death.

“We can remember him, and remember him, and remember him much as we want to,” high-pitched Big Bird told his friends when Muppet creator Jim Henson died. “But I don’t like it. It makes me sad.”

Tall, ungainly and baffled by so much, Big Bird was a natural teacher. Children figured things out — letters and numbers, sharing and forgiveness —  alongside him and at his pace.

He had learned to spell a few simple words, but in one show he was stumped by a long one — “Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz.” He, and his audience, made sense of it all together with help from a song.

And when Mr. Hooper invented a machine that makes 10 of everything put inside it, Big Bird discovered that more is not always better (he had inserted a trash can for Oscar).

Much of this was Spinney’s idea. The plan had been for Big Bird to provide comic relief, but taking inspiration from his own awkward childhood, Spinney saw Big Bird in another way. Children don’t laugh at Big Bird, they laugh and learn with him.

Young audiences discovered that there was good in everyone, even the gruff and grumpy. Spinney’s Oscar the Grouch wants only to be left alone, he declares at every opportunity. “Don’t knock on my trash can!”

But whenever that wish is granted, he peers out from beneath the trash can lid — “Where is everybody?”

Caroll Spinney joins the late Theodor Seuss Geisel (“A person’s a person, no matter how small”), Fred McFeely Rogers (“I like you just the way you are,”) and others who understood that children can be entertained and taught all at once.

Spinney’s world, which lives on with Sesame Street, has been a magical place for youngsters — and their parents — going on half a century.

Television does not get much better than this.

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Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email mrego@eastbaymediagroup.com.