Monday, December 09, 2019

Appreciating Caroll Spinney

By the time Sesame Street aired the segment that talked about store owner Mr. Hooper's death, I was in high school. I kept watching the show long after I aged out of it, but by that time, it was more of a joke. And I recall laughing with some friends about the segment - without, of course, having watched it. The thought of Big Bird dealing with death just seemed like it had to come off as maudlin.

Then, around the time that youtube was running whole hog, I saw the segment. And it crushed me. By just thinking about it, I have the same reaction I get when thinking about, or seeing, George Bailey pleading to Clarence that he wants to live again in It's A Wonderful Life. (When his brother Harry toasts him in the final minutes of the film, I have the same reaction.)

The writers of the Mr. Hooper story are largely responsible for pulling off a smart but difficult task, but a lot of the credit goes to Caroll Spinney, who portrayed Big Bird from the very beginning of Sesame Street. He conveys the reaction a typical six-year old might have while coming to grips with death. "Why can't things be like they were," he demands. It's the heaviest line in the whole scene because it sounds real. The whole segment was done with skill and grace. It doesn't dumb it down for the kids. The first time I saw it, I was bothered that Gordon explains it away with "just because." But I later saw an interview with Roscoe Orman, who played Gordon. That "just because" refers to a previous segment where Big Bird explains while he's doing a funny walk down the street: "just because." It was seen as something a kid would say when they're just doing what they want without any cares. Maybe it oversimplified the discussion of death, but it's done in a way that kids could understand.

Now Caroll Spinney has joined Jim Henson and Jerry Nelson at the Television Workshop in the sky. It's the end of an era.

Full disclosure: Big Bird was never my favorite character on the show.  That distinction probably goes to Cookie Monster. Yet his constant flubbing of Mr. Hooper's name, while the shop keeper was still on the show, was comedy gold to me. Especially since Big Bird carried on blissfully even when Mr. H barked out the correct way to say his name.

Besides, Spinney also voiced another fave on the show: Oscar the Grouch. I loved that Spinney based the voice on a grumpy cab driver who asked, "Where to, mac?" on his first day of work on Sesame Street. And Oscar's low, "heh-heh-heh" laugh was something that I took away from that character. I also thought it was hilarious when Oscar called Big Bird an "overstuffed bag of giblets." I didn't know what giblets were as a kid, but I didn't need to. It was funny.

All of these anecdotes from the show date back at least 35 years. Maybe I'm just the unusual type to keep these things in my memory bank, instead using that brain space for more productive things. Or maybe Caroll Spinney was really good at what he did and knew how to make an impression on viewers.

Either way, I salute and thank him for his work.

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