Someone is going to have some big
bird shoes to fill at Sesame Street.
Longtime Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who’s been controlling the popular puppets on the kids’ show for nearly 50 years, announced his retirement on Wednesday.
“Big Bird brought me so many places, opened my mind and nurtured my soul,” said Spinney in a statement. “And I plan to be an ambassador for Sesame Workshop for many years to come. After all, we’re a family! But now it’s time for two performers that I have worked with and respected – and actually hand-picked for the guardianship of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch – to take my alter-egos into their hands and continue to give them life.”
Spinney has been with Sesame Street since the series started up in 1969.
“Before I came to Sesame Street, I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important,” he said. “Big Bird helped me find my purpose. Even as I step down from my roles, I feel I will always be Big Bird. And even Oscar, once in a while! They have given me great joy, led me to my true calling and created a lifetime of memories that I will cherish forever.”
Spinney, 84, has been an artist his whole life, and he developed a passion for puppeteering at a young age. He performed in his childhood and in adolescence, using money garnered from it to help pay for his post-secondary tuition. After a stint in the Air Force, he became a professional puppeteer, performing in big cities like Las Vegas.
He met Sesame Street and Muppet creator Jim Henson at a puppetry festival in 1962, and the rest is history.
“Caroll has been one of the leading lights of Sesame Street from the very beginning,” said Joan Ganz Cooney, co-founder of Sesame Workshop. “His genius and his talent made Big Bird the most beloved yellow feathered friend across the globe. But the sheer artistry of Caroll is that he also brought Oscar to life and made him the most lovable Grouch in the world.”
According to the New York Times, Spinney had been having difficulty in past years in his role. The physical requirements (especially for Big Bird) were nearly out of range for him, and in 2015 he stopped puppeteering the big yellow guy.
So who’s taking Spinney’s place? Two puppeteers who Spinney has personally trained for more than 20 years: Matt Vogel, currently the “Puppet Captain” on Sesame Street and the performer of Count Von Count and Kermit the Frog for the Disney Muppets, will play Big Bird going forward. Oscar the Grouch will be performed by Eric Jacobson, who also controls Grover, Bert and Guy Smiley on Sesame Street and Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy for the Disney Muppets.
Spinney is one of the last surviving Sesame Street staffers who’ve been with the show since its beginnings.
“I’ve been playing a six-year-old for 50 years,” Spinney said to the Times. “And the children bought it.”