An ode to a giant yellow bird and a giant of education

By Andrew Johnston

I AM obsessed with the creations of Jim Henson.

From his original program Sam and Friends in the 1950s, the world has witnessed some incredible creativity through all his work.

But it was – and is – the Muppets that took Henson, his art and his billions of viewers, into infinity and beyond.

Through television and film the Muppets (and Fraggle Rock) became a cultural phenomenon, taking what was long viewed as a child’s medium in puppetry and making it for all ages.

It not only turned the like of Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy and Co into superstars, it elevated the unseen puppeteers (Henson along with Frank Oz, Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson) into stardom as well.

But, arguably the most important member of the team is one that few would know, or even know of.

His name was Caroll Spinney, and he died earlier this week at the age of 85.

Caroll spent 50 years of his life on arguably the most important children television franchise in history – Sesame Street – playing the roles Oscar the Grouch and, most importantly, Big Bird.

It should never go underestimated how important Big Bird is.

Despite his stature, he is essentially a child.

He is still very naive to the world around him and finds himself needing to learn lessons on a daily basis.

Big Bird, in many ways, is the creators taking their young audience and putting them in the middle of the street.

He became the captive character, someone the human characters and other Muppets could interact with, have discussions with and teach little pieces of knowledge to.

Big Bird was scripted to ask the same questions the audience of Sesame Street would have, so every moment Big Bird was on screen, he was being taught.

And so was everyone watching him.

Caroll Spinney was so important in making this character work for the audience.

Big Bird, despite his mammoth size, was kind and softly spoken.

He was never aggressive, even when frustrated or confused, he never moved in a way that made him seem to over the top.

The character somehow remained innocence personified – an act of genius and an anchor role to make the show work.

For more than 50 years Sesame Street has played a key role in teaching young people, particularly in areas of the world where access to early education is lacking.

It is a free public service (aired on PBS in the US and the ABC here) to make sure as many people had access to the show as possible.

It’s incredible what this show, particularly through the character of Big Bird, has done.

Countless millions, who by now must total billions, owe the invisible Caroll a significant debt, yet would not have recognised him if they had tripped over him.

On the street, you will find Hooper's Store, a small shop owned by Mr. Hooper.

Will Lee, who played Mr Hooper, died in December 1982, and the show used his death to explain what has traditionally been a TV taboo for children as Big Bird had to slowly come to terms with the fact his friend was gone.

It was pretty tough television to watch, I still get a bit emotional thinking about it.

Big Bird said: “Why does it have to be this way? Give me one good reason”.

And Gordon, a human character replied: “Big Bird, it has to be this way, just because”.

I wonder how Big Bird would be feeling now, knowing a very real part of him is gone.

Obviously he would be heartbroken, and the era that has spanned generations has passed into history because of him.

The world not only walks in Caroll Spinney’s shadow, it is so much the poorer for his loss.