Caroll Spinney On  Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch

Oscar (the Grouch) was a harder one for me initially, because I had never did a big, rough, tough guy’s voice.
 
 

James Sullivan

Interview by

2006, Sesame Street Studios in NYC
Digital recorder

Article appeared in the Boston Globe

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Transcript

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[Music: “Sesame Street” theme song]

James Sullivan: I’ve done all kinds of interviews with all kinds of people and that was probably one of the most fun. I got to sit behind the trash can while Carroll did the Oscar character.

David Gerlach: That’s writer James Sullivan, and he got to do something that millions of kids have dreamed about doing–he got to go to Sesame Street. And when he was there, James met the voice behind both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. It’s a guy named Caroll Spinney, and James profiled this puppeteer–who was approaching 80 years old–for a story he wrote in the Boston Globe.

James Sullivan: Obviously anybody who has grown up with Sesame street has an affection for those characters. I was looking forward to seeing Snuffleupagus but I don’t think he’s on the show too much anymore.

[Clip of Mr. Snuffleupagus: “Oh, hi guys. I feel sad.”]

David Gerlach: Let’s get right to the tape. Here’s Carroll Spinney on the story behind Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird. This is Blank on Blank.

James Sullivan: Okay, I guess let’s start with Big Bird.  Can you just tell me, Carroll, how you came to do the Big Bird voice?

Carroll Spinney: Well, Big Bird’s voice was originally rather like a dinosaur we know.

[Clip of Barney the dinosaur: “I love you. You love me.”]

Carroll Spinney: But within the first year I felt he should be a child. So instead of sounding like: “Hi, well here I am. What’re you doing today?” He talked like a yokel.  But then I decided he should be a child and they all agreed. And I talked like this: “Hi there. It’s me, Big Bird. I have yellow feathers. Yellow is my favorite color.”

[Clip of Big Bird: “Hi, it’s me Big Bird and I want to talk to you about asking questions. Now, a question is what you ask somebody when there’s something you want to find out. Like, um...”]

James Sullivan: How did you come up with the voice for Oscar?

Carroll Spinney: Well Oscar was a harder one for my initially, because I had never did a big, rough, tough guy’s voice or anything. I got in a cab for my final audition across town here in New York City. And the guy said “Where to, Mack?” I kept saying to myself  “That’s a good voice.” So I kept saying in my head, inside my head: “Where to, Mack?” I got to the studio, paid him, and went in and Jim Henson was ready there with the puppet. He said “Well, knock on the trashcan and Oscar will come up.” (Knocks on desk) “Get away from my trash can.”  And Jim Henson said, “That’ll do fine.”

[Clip of Oscar the Grouch singing: “Oh, I love trash. Anything dirty or dingy or dusty. Anything ragged or rotten or rusty. Yes, I love trash.”]

David Gerlach: That’s Carroll Spinney on creating Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. But I wanted to play one more clip from James’ interview. I love this part. You see, before “Sesame Street,” Carroll Spinney got his start creating characters for “Bozo’s Big Top.” It used to run in Boston in the 1960s. And as you can hear, Spinney had no problem falling right back into character.

James Sullivan: How about Picklepuss? You want to tell me about that character?

Carroll Spinney: Picklepuss talked like this: “Hi, Bozo.” And they talked about things like: “Guess what, Bozo? Today’s the first day of spring. So I guess it’s time to bring out our mackinaws and gloves and boots because it’s going to get cold.”

James Sullivan: And Grandma Nellie?

Carroll Spinney: Grandmas Nellie: “Landsakes, Bozo. I’ve got a wonderful deal for you here. Just give me a dollar. You’ll love it.”

James Sullivan: How often do you pull these old voices out of the quiver?

Carroll Spinney: Never (laughs).

[Music: Jon Brion “Monday”]

David Gerlach: Thanks to writer and author James Sullivan for bringing this interview to the archive. Check out all of his work at JamesSullivanAuthor.com. Shawn Wen produced this Blank on Blank with me. Our sound logo comes to us from Jeffrey Alan Jones. And for all the journalists, interviewers, non-fiction authors and documentary filmmakers out there: we want to hear your lost interviews, so drop us a line to interviews at blankonblank.org. Blank on Blank is distributed by the Public Radio Exchange,PRX dot org. I’m David Gerlach. Keep listening. Content to be toggled.

Music: “Sesame Street” Theme Song | Jon Brion “Monday”
Photos: Marnie Joyce via Flickr | Clare Nolan via Flickr