18. “The Wisdom of Big Bird,” Caroll Spinney

I expected this book to be closer to what the title implies: cheesy bits of wisdom wrung from Sesame Street quotes. Instead, it was a thoughtful little memoir about Spinney’s puppetry career and life on the Street.

I thought the bit about Jim Hansen’s funeral was particularly touching. Spinney counted Hansen as one of his heroes even before being asked to join Sesame Street and became friends with him during his tenure. Hansen was renowned for his incredibly elaborate parties and apparently Hansen had said years before that at his funeral that people should wear bright colors and tell happy stories. His celebration (to use Spinney’s term, which is great) was open to the public and thousands of people came for it. People sang “It’s not Easy Being Green.”

I have always felt that my family does funerals right. Though I’ve fortunately been to only a few of them, we usually eat a lot and tell a lot of stories, which I like. When I was quite young, I went with my mom and her best friend, Bev, to the mall because Bev needed to buy a new dress for a funeral. I remember her talking about how cruel and ridiculous it is to make people who are grieving go out to buy new clothes, a chore that sucks under the best of circumstances. She declared that when she died, she wanted everyone to come in jeans, which always made sense to me. You go as the person you lost knew you. You go as the person they loved.

(Also, Bev decided to simply tuck in the tags on her dress and return it after the service, because she wasn’t dropping money on a black dress she wouldn’t wear again. Which is so Bev.)

So I was already predisposed to like Hansen when Spinney quoted from a letter Hansen had left one of his sons: “Be good to each other. Love and forgive everybody.” Which seems just like something Vonnegut would write to his son, and seems fitting advice from the most famous puppeteer in the world, a man who used that craft to teach children the alphabet and compassion.

Spinney says that he was struck with the importance of teaching children to be compassionate when he was walking home from the studio one night and passed a man standing in the snow, shuffling his feet on the corner of the curb. He initially brushed past the man, thinking he was homeless or drunk or dangerous, but when he glanced back, he saw it was an old man. He asked if the man was okay and the man responded that he was scared to step off the curb because it was icy and he might fall. (I’ll give your heart a minute to break.) Spinney walked the man home and the following day went to the producer about his idea for using Big Bird to teach children to be compassionate, which is obviously a tall order. Spinney resolved to simply be compassionate as Big Bird and make sure the Bird’s heart was always in the right place. Which has surely worked.

It seems also that Spinney is responsible (at least in part) for making the muppets into child-like characters. Originally, Big Bird was a “hillbilly” or “yokel” character, but when Spinney got a script about Big Bird wanting to be able to go into a daycare with the human children, Spinney realized that that action doesn’t make sense unless Big Bird is another kid.

While my favorite Sesame Street character is and always will be Oscar the Grouch (also played by Spinney), I have a special place in my heart for Big Bird. When I was little, my sister and I had a ViewMaster of “Follow that Bird,” and for some reason, Big Bird makes me feel close to her.

Pages: 154

Page total: 4,238

  1. Vikky
    April 5, 2010 at 7:37 am

    I tore up reading this review.

    I read this, but can’t remember: does Spinney recount Hensen’s funeral, when Big Bird comes to the altar and sings Bein’ Green (and everyone else joined in), then Big Bird looks up and says, “‘Bye, friend.”?


    I love you.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: