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Big Bird And Oscar Puppeteer On 'Sesame Street' Dies At 85


All right. As we heard, puppeteer Caroll Spinney died yesterday. He gave life to Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on "Sesame Street." Through them, he taught so many kids about letters and numbers and happiness and sadness. Spinney died at his home in Connecticut at the age of 85, and NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Big Bird was originally envisioned by Muppets mastermind Jim Henson as goofy and bumbling, but Caroll Spinney told NPR in 2003 that he had a better idea for the character.


CAROLL SPINNEY: Within a week, I kind of faded the voice away from the goofy guy to Big Bird being a - more of a childlike creature. And he began to learn the alphabet - because when we started, he couldn't read or write.


SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) ...X, Y, Z. You mean, that's the alphabet?

LORETTA LONG: (As Susan) That's right.

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Oh, it's not a word.

LONG: (As Susan) No.

LIMBONG: Sherrie Westin is a president at Sesame Workshop. At last night's Kennedy Center Honors, she said Spinney, like Big Bird, had the hugest heart.

SHERRIE WESTIN: Big Bird has always been the sweet character looking out for everyone else on "Sesame Street," and that really was the heart of Caroll.


SPINNEY: (As Oscar the Grouch, singing) Oh, I love trash.

LIMBONG: Trying to nail Oscar the Grouch was a whole different thing, said Spinney.

SPINNEY: When Jim hired me, I didn't have a voice like that in my repertoire of character voices. I was getting desperate because it was finally down to the day before we were going to start taping. And so, as I took a cab across Manhattan, the taxi driver looked at me, he said - where to, Mac? And I said, wow, what a voice.


SPINNEY: (As Oscar the Grouch, singing) There's a slimy place...

LIMBONG: Caroll Spinney left art school early to join the Air Force, and while stationed in Las Vegas in 1955, he convinced a local TV station to let him do a puppet show for kids. The show was cut short when Spinney was transferred to Germany, but he found his way back to TV and back to puppets. "Sesame Street" was a physically demanding job. Big Bird is more than eight feet tall. Spinney had to reach up to work the beak, use his arm as Big Bird's neck. He also couldn't see out of the costume.

SPINNEY: I wear a tiny little television set that's strapped to my chest, and I'm watching to see if Big Bird is looking at Maria, whoever he's talking to. And if we have a complex walk for me to do, we can remove two feathers that are on by Velcro. But we try not to do that because sometimes you see this little dark spot in his chest where I'm peeking out.

LIMBONG: Spinney retired in 2018, but Big Bird and Oscar are still on the show, teaching kids kindness and grumpiness and carrying on the heart that Caroll Spinney brought to "Sesame Street." Andrew Limbong, NPR News.


THE KIDS: (Singing) Sunny day... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.