Category Archives: Sesame Street

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.

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.

You Can Talk All You Wanna…

As you can imagine, I love talking about Jim Henson — so much so, that it’s sometimes difficult for me to keep things short.  That’s why I love doing online interviews and podcasts, where you’ve got the time to stretch out, tell longer stories, and/or go on at length, as needed.  And sometimes even when not needed.

To that end, I point you toward three extended interviews I’ve done in the past few weeks, some of which you can watch, and a few of which you can even download and listen to later. Because nothing gets you moving quicker on the treadmill than listening to me in your headphones.

First, here’s a nearly hour-long interview I did with Oline Eaton for New Books In Biography.  In the interest of full disclosure, Oline’s a fellow member of BIO and a friend, but all that really means is that when you put the two of us together, we love to talk shop — so this interview spends some time on the process of writing and researching biography.  And you’ll even get a little behind-the-scenes look at the writing of the book’s prologue, which — spoiler alert! — I actually wrote last.

bitofachat-headerNext, here’s A Bit of Chat I did with the smart and cheeky Ken Plume.  If you’re a Muppet fan, you know that Ken knows his stuff — heck, in Jim Henson, I cited a number of interviews he’s conducted over the years with folks like Frank Oz and Steve Whitmire. We had a great time together, and talked for nearly an hour about Jim, the Muppets, mugs on The Daily Show, and the choreography of the unseen (a term I wish I could claim, but it’s Ken’s, not mine, darn it). I could have kept going much longer, but I had to take a phone call for another interview — and you’ll hear me answer the phone and apologetically bring the interview to a rather anticlimactic end.  Hopefully, Ken and I can do it again sometime, since things were really getting good.

Finally, during my trip to New Mexico at the end of October, I sat down for an interview at the local PBS station in Albuquerque to tape New Mexico In Focus. The regular host was out that day, so I got fill-in host Larry Ahrens instead — and I have to tell you, as a New Mexican, there’s actually no other interviewer I’d rather sit with.  Larry’s a New Mexico institution, hosting radio and TV shows for nearly as long as I can remember.  He had also really done his homework, which always makes for a fun interview — and since it was PBS, we talked quite a bit of Sesame Street, of course.

Here’s the New Mexico In Focus piece:

….and we were having so much fun with that, that we taped a Web Extra:

Brill, Booklist, and “Buzzworthy Bios”

As hard it is to believe, we’re a mere four weeks away from publication of Jim Henson: The Biography. At one point, September 24, 2013 seemed as far away as the 23rd century.  And now…here we are.  There are a couple of exciting things lined up for the weeks following the release of the book–including a couple of fun “cameo appearances” of the book in some unexpected places–all of which I’ll tell you about later, as we get closer to the 24th.

300px-Zoe-FranBrill-Prairie-medium-res

The one-of-a-kind Fran Brill, with Prairie Dawn and Zoe.

In the meantime, Jim Henson has picked up a couple more nice mentions, as well as some kind words from another longtime friend and collaborator. The lovely and talented Fran Brill — the first-ever full-time female Muppet performer, who made her debut on Sesame Street forty-three years ago, and still performs on the show to this day — had this to say about Jim’s story (and graciously permitted me to quote her):

“This is not only a superb biography for the Jim Henson and Muppet fans but also a sensitively-written portrayal of a great and unique human being that will fascinate any and all readers.”

Fran’s been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this project, and I’ve been grateful to her — on more than one occasion — for allowing me to pepper her with questions not only about her and Jim and the Muppet performers, but also Sesame Street sets, Muppet right-handing, and all those little quirky details that inform a story, even if they never make it onto the page.  A big thanks to her for everything.

A side-note: I had a great time interviewing Fran for the book, but never had the pleasure of talking with her in person (though we’re working on it — more on that later). We conducted our conversations over the phone instead, and it was such a thrill hearing that voice–so distinctive, so one-of-a-kind– come out of the speakerphone the very first time. Wanna see her in action? Here’s Fran and Prairie Dawn with Frank Oz and Grover as they try to stage Singin’ In The Rain:

Next up, the esteemed Booklist gave Jim Henson one of its coveted starred reviews, and I’m thrilled with its reaction.  At the moment, the review’s behind a firewall, but here’s a bit of it:

“[Jones’]  lucid style, wide-angle perspective, and deep immersion in Henson’s exuberantly innovative approach to puppets, television, and film make for a thoroughly compelling read . . . With verve and insight, Jones illuminates the full scope of Henson’s genius, phenomenal productivity, complex private life, zeal to do good, and astronomical influence.”

Very nice.  Finally, The Hollywood Reporter chose Jim Henson as one of its “Ten Hot Fall Hollywood Reads,”along with the upcoming biography of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep.  Which marks the first and likely only time I will ever be on the same list with Stephen King.