“Hold fast to dreams; for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” Langston Hughes
Fall 1969 – Salt Lake City, Utah: Carroll Spinney had just spent the last two months creating a multi-media puppet show. It cost $250, a fortune to him. Then using some of his savings, he had driven from his home in Boston to the Puppeteers of America Festival puppet show in Salt Lake, Utah.
Just before Carroll was to perform, he discovered his hero Jim Henson, creator of the famous Muppet Show, was in the audience. Excited and apprehensive, he knew this was his big moment. However, when the puppet show started, a bright spotlight shined on the set causing a glare on his animated background. Carroll stopped the show. He pleaded with the stagehands to turn out the light, but they didn’t know how. His puppet show was a disaster.
Embarrassed, humiliated, and sure he had blown his opportunity of a lifetime, Carroll packed his equipment backstage. To his surprise, Henson showed up. “I like what you were trying to do. Can you come to New York sometime and let’s talk about the Muppets?”
When Carroll was 5, his mother took him to his first puppet show, the Punch and Judy Show. After that puppeteering was all he talked about. He performed his first puppet show at age 8, charging the children who attended a nickel each. At 15, Carroll saw his first televised puppet show on a local Boston TV station. It became his dream to one day do puppets on a children’s TV show.
Following high school, Carroll joined the Air Force during the Korean War. While stationed in Las Vegas, he did a weekly puppet show on a local TV station. After the military, Carroll returned to Boston where he landed a job as a puppeteer on Bozo’s Big Top, the most popular children’s show in America.
Carroll was on the Bozo Show for a decade. The money was okay, but he was bored. In 1968, he attended the Puppeteers of America Festival in St. Louis and here he found the inspiration he sought when Jim Henson performed with the Muppets. That show inspired Carroll to build a set and drive to Salt Lake City the following year in hopes of meeting Henson.
A month after his disastrous puppet in Salt Lake City, Carroll arranged to meet Henson in New York. Henson was experimenting with a new educational preschool TV program called Sesame Street. He had developed the Burt and Ernie characters and had an idea for creating a big yellow bird.
Henson offered Carroll a job and tasked him with creating ‘Big Bird.’ Although it meant a significant pay cut, he jumped at the opportunity. On November 10, 1969, when Sesame Street premiered on the Public Broadcasting System, Carroll found himself inside an eight-foot yellow bird. The program was a hit.
After playing Big Bird for one season, Carroll decided to quit the show, because he couldn’t afford to live in New York on his meager salary. However, the show’s executive director persuaded him to stay for a second season. Two seasons became three, and then four and five. Carroll kept playing Big Bird while Sesame Street became a national sensation.
Today, Sesame Street is in its 54th season. Carroll Spinney played the role of Big Bird for 49 years until his death in 2018 at age 85. Filming the show was exhausting for him. The Big Bird costume required him to raise his right arm above his head to create Big Bird’s neck while his right hand operated the mouth and eyes. He had to maintain this position for hours. A TV monitor inside the puppet allowed him to see.
Big Bird traveled the world. He performed annually at the White House Children’s Christmas party and met six Presidential First Ladies. In April 2000, the Library of Congress to commemorate its 200rd birthday, named 81 Americans, including Big Bird, to its Living Legend Award. Carroll Spinney’s puppet dream became a National Treasure.
“The most important lesson I ever learned is that first you must have a dream,” says Carroll, who won four Emmys and two Grammy Awards for his role as Big Bird. “There will be setbacks and disappointments but don’t let them deter you from your dream. Dare to dream. If you don’t, your dreams will never come to be.”