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Buy 'The Wit and Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons From a Life in Feathers' by Caroll Spinney with J Milligan.

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Photograph by Victor Dinapoli

Biter

The Word on the Bird

The view from inside two 'Sesame Street' denizens

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CAROLL SPINNEY and Waylon Jennings were having dinner in Worcester, Mass., and an overly enthusiastic fan accosted Jennings for an autograph. Pointing at Spinney, Jennings said, "He's the one you want. He's Big Bird."

Spinney, 69, is the most famous unknown person in the world. He has performed as both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street since the show's inception in 1969. No one doesn't know Big Bird. He's been on the cover of Life Magazine. He's got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He's conducted symphony orchestras. He's met six first ladies. The Library of Congress declared him a living legend. But Caroll Spinney doesn't care that no one knows who he is.

"Wherever I go, I'm completely anonymous. It's generally a complete advantage," he said over the phone in a voice that sounds nothing like the ragged, rotten, rusty grouch who wailed on "I Love Trash."

But Spinney doesn't believe in complete anonymity, or he wouldn't have written The Wit and Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons From a Life in Feathers. Spinney read from and signed copies of the book last Sunday at Hicklebees in Willow Glen. Never before has Spinney been on a promotional tour outside of the Big Bird costume.

The book itself is a short inspirational tale of the lessons Spinney has learned from 34 years operating the Big Bird and Oscar puppets. He reveals many great stories from the Sesame Street experience. Biter, for instance, never knew that Will Lee, the guy who played Mr. Hooper, was originally on Sen. Joe McCarthy's blacklist of actors who were deemed a threat to national security. We had no idea the Big Bird puppet contains no eyeholes, and that Spinney has a miniature TV monitor inside the costume showing a view of him from the outside. Also--and this is important--we now know how to spell the word Snuffleupagus. "It's all one word," said Spinney. "So many places they hyphenate it. But we always say, There's no hyphenation. Not in the Snuffleupagus family. It's in that DNA, you know."

But what do the kids think at these booksignings? Biter imagined upset children, whimpering over learning that Big Bird and Oscar aren't real. "I don't think it's the perfect thing for them, because we try generally to guard very carefully the Bird and Oscar," Spinney explained, "but [the kids] don't seem to mind. ... They seem to be quite happy."

This is true. People of all ages packed Hicklebees, and there wasn't one negative reaction from anyone. Spinney even brought Oscar the Grouch with him and performed for the audience. Transporting the Big Bird puppet requires a truck, so Spinney didn't bring it on the tour.

And don't even think about a post-Big Bird world with Caroll Spinney basking in retirement. "I'm a fortunate person--for one thing, I'm doing what I wanted to do when I was a kid--and so far, I don't feel any different than when I was 50. I'm not lying. I have a job that keeps me young. I'm having too much fun to ever want to walk away from the Bird."

The last exchange we had over the phone with Spinney:

Biter: We'll be at the reading Sunday; we'll come check it out.

Spinney: Great! Be sure to identify yourself.

Biter: We don't look at all like what we sound like.

Spinney: Neither do I sometimes.


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From the May 22-28, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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