Pop Con Brings Caroll Spinney and Other Childhood Favorites

Nov. 4, 2016
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This weekend’s inaugural Pop Con Milwaukee is happening Nov. 5-6 at the Crown Plaza Hotel and Convention Center and offers a chance to meet an eclectic array of guests from different pockets of pop culture.

Guests include innovative Marvel Comics artist Jim Steranko, reality star Richard Hatch (the winner of season 1 of Survivor), Ken Kranz (“the oldest living Green Bay Packer”) and a variety of other horror and TV actors, sports legends, and artists.

Puppeteer Caroll Spinney, now 83 years old, is one of the convention’s special guests and the man behind two of Sesame Street’s most iconic characters—the childlike innocent Big Bird and the cantankerous garbage can dweller Oscar the Grouch, characters Spinney has portrayed since the show’s first season in 1969.

Spinney had a career in puppeteering, performing on a show out of Boston called “Bozo’s Big Top,” but he found his more famous path after a performance at a puppeteering festival in Salt Lake City. In his mind, the show had been a failure. He had done a performance that was supposed feature animated characters onscreen interacting with puppets, but spotlights washed the animation out. To make matters worse, Spinney was informed that Muppet creator Jim Henson was in the audience, scouting talent.

“I thought ‘oh great, Jim’s here and I do a lousy show,’” Spinney explained over the phone. “I’m putting all my stuff away and I hear a voice say, ‘I like what you were trying to do,’ I turn around and its Jim Henson.” The two sat down and talked about a new show Henson was involved with—“Sesame Street.”

“Sesame Street” was a pay cut for Spinney and his impressions of the first season weren’t necessarily that it was to become a worldwide hit.

“It seemed like an amateurish show at the time,” Spinney says, but adds that he knew there was potential, “I saw a better future for the show, something special.”  A major part of the show’s success was Spinney’s character development.

“Jim’s original idea for Big Bird was just a goofy, silly character, but I decided to play him as a child,” Spinney explains. He gave the show’s young audience a character they could identify with.

“I got so many letters from children telling me how they considered Big Bird to be their friend, asking if he could come over and play with them,” Spinney says. Oscar has also appealed to audiences who find it cathartic to unleash their inner Grouch. One fan told Spinney Oscar enabled her to stand up for herself.

Over the years, Spinney has had a plethora of interesting stories, some of them quite touching, others frightening. There was a time a fire caught on the set and Spinney barely escaped from the confines of Oscar’s garbage can. Another time a guest rapper (Spinney doesn’t want to name him) became angry and punched Big Bird in the head and got escorted off set. Spinney was also set to portray Big Bird for a 1986 NASA mission, but was replaced late in the scheduling with a teacher after it was determined the Big Bird costume was too cumbersome to fit onboard. That mission was the ill-fated Challenger.

Spinney’s love for his characters have kept him on set to film thousands of episodes of the show and he’ll return to the Sesame Street set later in the month. Off-season he creates paintings and travels to do shows like conventions like Pop Con.

“Forty-seven years later, I’m still doing the characters,” Spinney says. “I’ve had offers, better offers, but I’ve said no, I’m going to stay on’Sesame Street.’”

You can find more info on this weekend’s Pop Con here.

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