Category Archives: Muppets

Remembering Caroll Spinney

Caroll Spinney (1933-2019)

I wanted to take a moment to celebrate the life and work of the legendary Muppet performer Caroll Spinney, who passed away Sunday at age 85. Best known for performing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch — roles he performed for five decades — I thought it might be fun for readers to know a little bit about the circumstances that brought Big Bird, Oscar, and Caroll Spinney himself to Sesame Street.

In July 1968, Jim Henson was brought into the creative meetings that spawned the Children’s Television Workshop organization and the show Sesame Street. Jim was pivotal to the development of the series — co-creator Jon Stone advised his fellow CTW members that if they couldn’t get Jim Henson to perform puppets on Sesame Street, then there was no use having puppets on Sesame Street at all — and Jim immediately delivered, creating iconic Muppet characters like Ernie and Bert. Here’s Jim and Frank Oz working with an early version of Bert in a mirror:

As originally envisioned by its team of educators and child experts, Sesame Street was to move from Muppet segments over to “human only” segments, then back to Muppets, with no crossover–that is, while there were Muppets and human beings featured on Sesame Street, never the twain shall meet. The rationale was that preschoolers couldn’t differentiate between fantasy and reality–that blending the fantasy world of the Muppets with Real People would be confusing.

That was all well and good on paper — but there was a problem.

In the first test versions of the show, “people on the street couldn’t compete with the puppets,” said Jon Stone. “We had children watching these shows, and their attention span just went way down when we cut to the street.”

Here’s Stone with Jim Henson and an early version of Ernie:

The solution, then, was obvious. Muppets were needed on the street.

Jim’s original design for Big Bird.

Jim Henson thought about it, and decided they needed “a character that the child could live through . . . we wanted to make this great big silly awkward creature that would make the same kind of dumb mistakes that kids make.” Big Bird, then — all seven feet of him — would represent the perspective of the children in the audience.

Jim and Jon Stone also decided they wanted another character that was Big Bird’s polar opposite of a wide-eyed innocent: a cynical, complaining grouch named Oscar. “We didn’t want to let it get TOO sweet,” said Stone. Originally, too, Jim and Stone had considered having Oscar live in the sewers, but decided that was “too gross.”

The next question was one of personnel—Jim wanted both characters performed by a single puppeteer, available for 130 shows each year. That was too much work for Jim to take on himself — and the versatile Frank Oz had already sworn off walk-around characters after the misery of performing the La Choy Dragon in the La Choy Chinese Food commercials. Take a look at one of these commercials:

That’s Frank Oz in the La Choy Dragon walk-around costume. He hated it.

So in August of 1969, Jim went on a recruiting trip to the Puppeteers of American convention in Salt Lake City. It was here he watched a 35-year-old performer named Caroll Spinney, who advertised his performance as “an experimental production” of puppetry and an animated background.

Caroll Spinney.

But as Spinney began his performance, an errant spotlight shone down on the screen behind him. “I couldn’t see my films to synchronize my movements,” sighed Spinney. “It was an immediate disaster.” But Jim made of point of greeting him backstage, and asked Spinney to meet with him again later.

When Spinney arrived at their meeting, Henson greeted him warmly. “I liked what you were TRYING to do,” he told Spinney, and offered him a job with the Muppets. Spinney eagerly and immediately accepted.

It would take a bit before Spinney “found” Big Bird’s character. Originally something of a bumpkin, Spinney soon began to play him as a four-year-old, and with a bit of redesigning—making his eyes less droopy and adding more feathers to his head–he became a preschooler in plumage. And played with Spinney’s sense of wide-eyed wonder, Big Bird was now truly representative of the audience.

Old with the old . . . in with the new.
Spinney with the original Oscar, 1969.

Spinney was nervous about debuting Oscar — originally an orange shag rug with angry eyebrows and a wide mouth—in front of Henson. Spinney had only decided on the voice to use–based on a gruff Bronx cabdriver that had driven him to the studio–on the morning of the character’s first rehearsal appearance on October 10, 1969. He hadn’t run the voice past Jim first.

Making things even more nerve-wracking, Spinney had another problem in that the set had been constructed in such a way that the right-handed Spinney—once he was wedged behind the scenes and maneuvered himself into place—could only perform Oscar with his left hand. “Left hands are much stupider than your right if you’re right-handed,” he explained. It was a problem it would take a while to fix — note the contorted Oscar shown at right, as seen in Sesame’s first episode.

With Henson watching, Spinney screwed himself in position behind the trash can anyway, and a few moments later, Henson knocked on the can’s lid. Using Oscar’s head, Spinney banged the lid open. “GET AWAY FROM MY TRASH CAN!” he yelled in his Bronx cabdrivers’ voice.

Jim Henson smiled. “That’ll do fine,” he said.

Spinney and Oscar, in conversation with Jim Henson.

Oscar, too, would be quickly redesigned, turning from radioactive orange to mossy green, a look he debuted on The Flip Wilson Show. (A confused CTW exec asked “What the hell is that?” but Oscar would remain green.)

For the rest of his life, Spinney would insist that Oscar was merely misunderstood — that underneath the grouch exterior there was actually a heart a gold. Jon Stone was having none of it. “The guy is a shit, right to the core,” he insisted. But Spinney invested the character with his own humanity–and despite Stone’s insisting otherwise, there burns a warm spot at the very center of the grouch.

Sesame Street would debut on November 10, 1969. Spinney would perform Big Bird and Oscar for the next five decades—truly the Muppets’ Iron Man. Jim Henson would always warmly and proudly refer to Spinney—the only day-to-day Muppet performer on the street–as “Muppets West.”

So here’s to Caroll Spinney, who played an enormous part in my childhood and my life—and probably yours as well. His childlike wonder made a Big Bird fly, and his humanity made Oscar . . . well, a lovably relatable grouch. Not a bad legacy at all.

Go Watch Muppet Guys Talking

Muppet-Guys-Talking-the-Muppet-GuysIf you’re a Muppet fan, chances are you’re already anxiously awaiting the release of Muppet Guys Talking, Frank Oz’s documentary of . . . well, Muppet guys talking about life, art, and working with Jim Henson.  And who are the Muppet Guys? They’re Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Fran Brill, Dave Goelz, and Bill Barretta. More information — including how you can watch the documentary when it’s released later this week — is available over on muppetguystalking.com.  Go.

While you wait, you might also wanna check out this really wonderful interview with Frank Oz, conducted by those savvy fellas over at Tough Pigs. And I’ve gotta admit: I’m thrilled to be on the receiving end of some first-rate Frank Oz ballbreaking:

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NOTE: I actually love Paul McCartney.

It’s Jim Henson Day!

Okay, maybe it’s really not Jim Henson Day — but it’s Jim’s 81st birthday, so over on Twitter I suggested we make #JimHensonDay a thing.  And really, when the President of the United States is tweeting like a lunatic, all but taunting another country into nuclear war, I figure now is as good a day as any to remind ourselves that there are still a lot of good people and good things going on in the universe — and that Jim, his life, and work remain an inspiration for fun, creativity, and basic decency.

Here’s the string of Twitter posts I put up this morning.  Feel free to comment on what Jim and his work mean to you in the comments — or join the conversation on Twitter on the hashtag #JimHensonDay.

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Go out and do something silly today.  Jim would approve.  Heck, he’d encourage it.

Hey Froggy Baybeeeee!

I don’t know who actually posted his — someone calling him/herself “Henson Rarities” — but whoever they are, they’ve posted on YouTube one of my all-time favorite Muppet variety show appearances. It’s Kermit and Grover performing “What Kind of Fool Am I?” on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1970, and it’s a thing of beauty, even with the terrible condition of the video. (Nerd note: Unofficial Official Muppet Historian Craig Shemin actually found a much higher-quality, full color version of this that he unveiled in New York a few years ago, and lemme tell ya, it is a beaut.)

Just One Person: An Excerpt from JIM HENSON: THE BIOGRAPHY

jim-henson-muppets-1980
A NOTE FROM BRIAN:
I usually prefer to celebrate a subject’s date of birth rather than observe the day he died. But it’s worth noting that twenty-five years ago today — May 16, 1990 — Jim Henson passed away at 1:21 a.m. in New York.

Readers of Jim Henson: The Biography often tell me that they find the chapter on Jim’s death to be both sad and fascinating, especially as the circumstances of Jim’s death have, for the last two-and-a-half decades, been misinterpreted, misreported, or just plain misunderstood. I appreciate hearing that readers find this portion of the book as gratifying as they do heartbreaking. You can thank the Henson family for their openness in discussing Jim’s death, and for providing me with the honor — and responsibility — of reading Jim’s medical records from that day in May 1990.

As we remember Jim on the occasion of his passing, then, I thought I’d do something a bit different. I’m posting below — perhaps for only a limited time — an excerpt from the chapter “Just One Person,” from Jim Henson: The Biography, on the days leading up to and including Jim’s death. We’ll begin on Saturday, May 12, 1990, with Jim and his daughter Cheryl flying to North Carolina to visit his father Paul and stepmother Bobby. Continue reading

Remembering Stan Freberg

stanMan, this one hurts. The great Stan Freberg has passed away at age 88.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Freberg around 2012 when I was doing research on Jim Henson.  I was very excited to make the phone call, as I was a huge fan of his, and when I mentioned how much I loved his “Banana Boat” parody, Stan immediately dropped into that great voice and did a bit of it on the phone (“I came through the window!”)

So what does Stan have to do with Jim Henson and the Muppets? Glad you asked.

In the early days of the Muppets, when Jim Henson was doing Sam and Friends here in DC on our local NBC station, Jim used to have the Muppets lip-synch to comedy records–which more often than not meant he was gonna use one of Freberg’s. Here are a few of the members of the cast of Sam and Friends (specifically Moldy Hay and Hank and Frank) lip-synching to Freberg’s “C’est Ci Bon,” probably sometime in 1955 or 1956.  Take a look, and I’ll be back with you after the video:

Wasn’t that great? Now, an interesting coda to all this: back in the 1950s, there was never much thought given to clearing records for usage, which likely would have involved paying royalties–an expensive proviso, especially for a college student, which is what Jim still was in 1957. The strategy, then, was to ask forgiveness instead of permission–and when any wounded artist brought their concerns to Jim’s attention, most gave way after meeting Jim and watching the Muppets.

That was true for Freberg as well, who in 1957 learned that his records were being used without attribution (or recompense!) and went storming down to WRC-TV one evening to take up the matter with Jim personally. Once he actually saw Jim (and Jane) performing to his records, he immediately melted. Shortly thereafter, he sent Jim an enthusiastic telegram. “I take it all back,” Freberg wrote. “This is one of the greatest acts I have ever seen [and I] am honored to let you use my records for ever and longer.” And so they did.

Miss ya already, Stan.

(No) Wonder From Down Under!

I spent a few moments on the phone yesterday with Eoin Cameron from ABC Radio in Perth, Australia, discussing Jim Henson and the Muppets — and wouldn’t you know, it’s already available for your listening pleasure. If you’ve got eight minutes, click here if you wanna listen. And my thanks to Eoin for having me on.

What’s Up This Week

Happy Jim Henson’s Birthday Week!

Jim Henson would’ve turned 78 years old this coming Wednesday, September 24–and as always, there’ll be plenty of people commemorating his life and work all over the web and other media. Heck, I’ll be one of them. Here’s a bit of what’s in store for this week:

Today, I’m thrilled to be over on This Happy Place blog, talking Jim and Muppets with Estelle Hallick, one of the biggest Muppets/Jim Henson/Disney fans anywhere. You can see our conversation right here. As an added bonus, we’re also giving away an e-book, as well as a complete and unabridged copy of the audiobook — all 21 1/2 hours on 17 CDs — signed by Yers Truly.

On Wednesday, I’m taping a podcast with the crew at The Assembly of Geek, which should be available for you to listen to and download the next day.

And on Thursday, I think it’s high time I officially announced what my next project is — and on which I actually just completed the first chapter this past week. Stay tuned.

In Which I Am On CNN, Go To Boston, and Get Back In The Chair

Good grief, it’s really been over a month since I last checked in here? I’m never gonna get a John Scalzi-type following at this rate…

First thing’s first–and because everyone asked me about it at the time–the CNN piece on the Muppets finally aired in late May. The CNN crew had come to my house here in Maryland ages ago to film me in my basement office, and then I never heard anything more about it. I had assumed it had turned into vapor trails, until a sharp-eyed fan on Twitter alerted me to it: a half-hour special called CNN Spotlight: The Muppets, with a brief look at Jim Henson about a third of the way through it.

In case you missed it (and even if you didn’t), here’s the piece in its entirety:

 

I also had the great pleasure of speaking in mid-April at the newly-opened Gaithersburg Library here in my neck of the words, with the added bonus that C-SPAN was in attendance to record my hour-long talk in its entirety for BookTV.  No word yet on when, or even if, it’ll air, but I’ll let you know what I hear. More than likely, some eagle-eyed Muppet fan will spot it before I do and let me know about it.

In mid-May, I headed for Boston to attend Biographers International Organization’s annual conference. It was my privilege to be elected the organization’s president in early spring, but that meant that in addition to the two panels I was on and the one panel I was moderating, I also had to act as emcee for much of the conference–which also meant I didn’t have as much time to spend catching up with everyone as I would have liked. One of the founding principles of BIO is to address with what we informally call “the loneliness quotient,” so the opportunity to mingle and trade stories with other biographers is one of the genuine pleasures of attending the BIO conference. It’s also perhaps the only place on the planet where you can grouse about having to assemble the index for your book (“And that index?!? AMIRIGHT?”) and have everyone in the room nodding sympathetically.

At the final reception, we announced the finalists and winner of the Plutarch Award, presented to the best biography of the year, as chosen by biographers.  I was pleased and honored that Jim Henson was among the finalists (along with Ray Monk’s Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center and Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin), with the well-deserved winner being Linda Leavell’s Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne MooreIf you haven’t read any of these fine biographies, do yourself a favor and grab any one of them. Better yet, grab ’em all.

And, oh yeah . . . I’m at work again. On Something Cool. That means I’ll be back at the desk regularly again –which I’m also hoping means I can get back here more often. Bear with me.

Behind The Scenes: The Prologue

One of the sections of Jim Henson that readers seem to enjoy the most — at least as far as I can determine from my very unscientific assessment of things — is the book’s prologue. Under the chapter title “Blue Sky,” it’s a behind-the-scenes look at this classic moment from Sesame Street, when a little girl named Joey sings the ABCs with Kermit the Frog:

love that people love this prologue — and it might surprise you to know that the very first thing you read in the book is actually one of the very last things I wrote for it.  I wrote the current prologue so late in the process, in fact, that if you were one of those readers who received an Advance Review Copy (ARC), you actually got a book that had a different prologue in it.

My editor Ryan and I knew we wanted to open the book in media res — the moment you started reading, we wanted you to see Jim already successful and working and being creative, and doing all those things that made him Jim Henson. We talked about some places in the manuscript where a quick story or vignette might be fleshed out into a slightly longer opening piece, and I made a long list of several good moments in the book where, while writing the manuscript, I wished I’d had just a little more time and space to give to a particular story. After much consideration, we decided to go with a slightly-less known moment–at least for casual fans–from the 1960s, when Jim and the Muppet team decided to paint the pipes in his dressing room at NBC while waiting to appear with Jack Paar. You can see Frank Oz talking all about those pipes–now preserved and built into the NBC Studio tour– fifty years later, in this clip:

Oz used the term “affectionate anarchy,” and I loved the phrase so much–it’s such a perfect way to sum up the Muppet mentality–that I put it at the top of the opening chapter. And that was how the ARCs went out in early 2013 — with a prologue about the Muppet pipes called “Affectionate Anarchy.” And it stayed that way for quite a while.

Then, in the late Spring, Ryan called to go over some final edits and review photo credits—and while we were talking, he brought up the prologue. “Everyone here loves the book,” he said in his usual diplomatic manner, “but a few people have mentioned they’d like to see Muppets in the prologue. While I still think what we have is great, do you wanna take a stab at another one and we can see what we think?”

That actually sounded fine to me.  Two years earlier, even before I had written a single word of Jim Henson, I had always pictured his biography opening with him working on the labor-intensive opening scene of The Muppet Movie, sinking himself in a makeshift bathysphere to perform Kermit from underwater. I had even tried writing just such an opening, but hadn’t been happy with the first few drafts.  This seemed like a good opportunity to go back and work on it again.

I wrote and rewrote for a week, but after several more drafts, it still wasn’t coming together. It was too big and ambitious and technical; I needed something warmer and more intimate. So I decided to start over, looking down my list of Muppet moments, and decided to expand on one that I particularly loved–the ABC Cookie Monster bit–which took up only about a page in the ARC.

The chapter’s title actually came right away, courtesy of a story told to me by Sesame Street performer Fran Brill who, during one of our phone interviews, told me of director Jon Stone and others calling out “blue sky!” when a child was on the set, reminding staff to watch their mouths. I loved that; it was such a warm image for Sesame Street — after all, wouldn’t one of Sesame Street‘s famous “sunny days” have a blue sky?–and it seemed a perfect way to begin.

I wrote the prologue over two days—a slow pace to be sure.  I sent it off to Ryan, who smartly excised one line near the end, then sent me one of his typically concise e-mails: “This is perfect.” I don’t know about that, but I do like it.

Henson-pipesOne last thing: with the new prologue in place, I now had to find a new photo to use at the top of the chapter. In the original ARC, I had planned on using a photo of the Muppet pipes — probably something like the photo at right — but with the new prologue, I would have to look for something new.  There were no photos of Jim performing the ABC sketch with Joey; about the best I could do was a screen grab. Without that, then, what I really wanted was a photo of Jim getting ready to perform—preparing to bring a character to life simply by putting it on the end of his arm, which is one of the themes of the prologue.

JimandKermitonLapInitially, I wanted to go with the photo at the left — it’s Jim with Kermit draped across his lap, miked up and waiting to perform, probably not on Sesame Street, but it makes the point.  When it came time to clear the image, however, Disney wouldn’t allow its use, informing me that they didn’t permit photos of “dead” Muppets.  I argued that that was precisely my point — that Kermit is dead until Jim puts him on–but despite the help of a sympathetic archivist at The Walt Disney Company, I had to scuttle this particular image and look for another. If you’ve got the book, you can see the image I eventually chose (you actually don’t have to look much further than the top of this blog, where you’ll see Jim squatting with Kermit on his arm).

So there you have it.  If you’re one of those readers who has an ARC of Jim Henson: The Biography, and are wondering if there’s anything significantly different between the ARC and the final product, you’ll find it in the first few pages.