When I read yesterday that Sesame Street puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who created and played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, is retiring after nearly 50 years on the groundbreaking show, it reminded me of the time I met him (and Oscar the Grouch) ten years ago.
I've been doing publicity for he Christopher Awards for 20 years, and I was at the annual media awards program when Caroll was the presenter for the Childrens Books Awards. He had previously won a Christopher Award, in 2004.
Before he presented the awards, he told a story that touched me -- and it obviously touched him because he became choked up as he told it from the podium.
He told of a letter that came to the producers of Sesame Street from the parents of a young boy of about 5 who was dying of cancer. He had lost the will to fight and was depressed -- never smiling. The parents asked if it might be possible for the boy to get a phone call from Big Bird.
When the letter was passed along to Spinney, who seems to be a gentle and compassionate soul, he immediately agreed. He said he called the boy and, in his Big Bird voice, spoke with him for several minutes.
A week later he received another letter from the parents, telling him how thrilled their son had been to get the call. He showed excitement and smiled for the first time in weeks as he told his parents, who were at his bedside in the hospital, that Big Bird had called him and he was happy that Big Bird was his friend. A few minutes later, he peacefully slipped away.
Spinney's voice choked with emotion as he told the story.
I had a chance to chat with him for a while after the ceremony, and he said to this day he is glad that he showed compassion and called that boy. As we talked about it, his eyes teared and he explained it still moves him, even after many years.
Spinney told me that Big Bird's role originally was simply to teach about letters and numbers. But he realized the importance of teaching about compassion after he walked past a man on the street who he assumed was a derelict muttering to himself. Something made him stop, turn around and ask the man if he needed help. It turned out, the the man couldn't walk well and had been asking strangers to help him across the street. Spinney walked the man not only across the street, but the three blocks to his apartment building.
The next day, he told the producers of Sesame Street that he wanted Big Bird to teach kids about feelings and compassion. And after a while, Big Bird became the character who expressed concern about others' feelings.
After we talked for a while, I thanked him for taking the time. And he said to me, "No. Thank you for coming over to talk with me."
And then Oscar gave me a hug. How cool!
A note about Oscar... At the after-party, Caroll stood quietly in a corner holding Oscar. People -- grown-ups -- were lined up for a chance to take a photo with Oscar and as Oscar talked to them, every person spoke directly to Oscar the puppet, even as Caroll was speaking, with his lips clearly moving. That's the power of master puppetry and of an impactful TV show.