Late in 2019, just a few weeks after Sesame Street celebrated their 50th anniversary, they lost an original cast member: Carroll Spinney. Spinney operated and performed as two of the show’s most iconic characters, Oscar the Grouch and (my all time favorite) Big Bird.
I loved Big Bird. He was yellow and he was usually happy. He had a teddy bear named Radar, so that’s what I called my bear. My parents watched M.A.S.H. but as a toddler, I didn’t understand why that was funny to adults until much later.
Here are some of my favorite Big Bird items and/or memories:
The Big Bird Chair (Knickerbocker)
I received this as a gift for my second Christmas. I was the first grandchild on both sides of the family. My grandparents, aunts, and uncles put forth the effort to find the desired items on my list. According to my mom, my mother’s side of the family had called dibs on getting it for me.
I still have this chair. When I was too big for it, my brother sat in it. When he was too big for it, it went into the garage. Now it’s in the living room for when my nieces come over. My four year old niece can still sit in it, but when she’s too big, it’s going upstairs to be used as either a holiday mood table or to display my other collectible toys.
In the picture above, poor Ronald McDonald is left face down so I could sit in the Big Bird chair and strum on a toy ukulele. One of my family members thought it was funny to teach me the “My Dog Has Fleas” song on it. It’s the only thing I remember about the ukulele, but I remember watching many episodes of my favorite shows while sitting on the chair.
Big Bird Cake/Candle (with Disney Characters)
The only thing better than a cake with small figures of your favorite characters is a cake with your favorite character depicted in the icing! When I was two, I had a birthday cake with frosting Big Bird and my third (Strawberry Shortcake) birthday, I had a Sesame Street cake topper.
When I asked my mom about it, she said we were never sticklers about “theme” birthday parties. Probably the closest I came to having one of those was when I had my fifth birthday party at McDonald’s, but I don’t think my presents were specifically tied to McDonald’s merchandise or anything like that. Even now, Strawberry Shortcake and her friends are relaxing with She-Ra and hers.
Talking Big Bird
This is another Christmas present: an old school “pull the ring” talking toy. I played with Talking Big Bird, but he was way too big to carry around with me, so I also had a smaller silent version I carried around and fed pancakes to at Denny’s.
Big Bird Talking Alarm Clock
I almost forgot about this one, but when I did a search for Talking Big Bird, a picture of the alarm clock came up. I remembered having the clock, but I don’t remember when I got it. It must have been either a Christmas or birthday present.
It’s always interesting to see discontinued characters included in vintage merchandise. I had completely forgotten about the existence of Little Bird and there he is, on something I used on a daily basis until it broke. (Possibly in the move to Georgia, but I’m not sure.)
Big Bird Watch
As cute as this was (his wings were the watch hands) and as much as I loved wearing it (and a Care Bears one I received later) there was a big problem: the watches would run on me for maybe ten minutes and then they would stop running.
I don’t know why my relatives kept trying to give me watches as gifts because they all knew this because my mom and my brother do the same thing.
The Death of Mr. Hooper
This hit hard and it was the first thing that came to mind late last year when I saw the Tweet announcing Carroll Spinney had passed away. For some reason, I have the Sesame Street episode that dealt with Mr. Hooper’s death associated with the passing of my paternal grandmother (pictured in the Talking Big Bird photo above).
Maybe that episode was first airing or was being repeated because that’s where PBS was in the cycle. It meant so much to me at the time to see my favorite character experiencing the same thing I was.
Follow That Bird
Big Bird was in a MOVIE that I got to see in the theater! I haven’t seen this movie in a while, but I want to watch it again soon. There was one thing about the movie (when Big Bird was painted blue) that puzzled me until I learned that there are multiple versions made of each Muppet.
Even as a little kid, I knew that blue and yellow made green. If they dyed his yellow feathers blue, wouldn’t Big Bird have been the same color as Oscar? It’s the rare case where knowing how things were probably done behind the scenes that gives my adult self some peace of mind.
Big Bird Meets Mr. Rogers/Big Bird Visits the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
This is my favorite crossover of anything ever. My favorite part of Mr. Rogers’ visit to Sesame Street is when Big Bird invites Mr. Rogers to see his nest. My favorite scene in the Mister Rogers Neighborhood episode is when X the Owl recites the poem he wrote in honor of Big Bird’s visit.
Muppets Take Manhattan
I was excited to see Big Bird sitting with the Sesame Street Muppets in the final scenes of the movie. It was a fun surprise.
Muppets Take Manhattan gets a lot of flack, but it did introduce characters (like Rizzo the Rat) and concepts that later brought forth the beloved Muppet Babies cartoon, Muppet Family Christmas, and even Muppet Christmas Carol.
Muppet Family Christmas
We taped this when it aired on television and watched it just as often as we watched A Charlie Brown Christmas and Garfield Christmas. In fact, we watched it so often the actual tape broke. We watched it several times between Thanksgiving and Christmas and also in the middle of the summer.
My favorite scene in the special was when the turkey talked the Swedish Chef (who was my favorite Muppet Show Muppet) into cooking Big Bird for the Muppet family meal. Big Bird connects with the chef over being homesick and they sing about “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” and The Swedish Chef gives Big Bird a bag of cranberries and birdseed.
My Big Bird T-Shirt
When I was in high school, I was in my second childhood. (Since joining the retro community, I’m either on my third or fourth. I’ve lost count.) Retro cartoons seemed to be just as popular then as they are now and there was a cartoon store at the mall where I got a Dudley Do-Right baseball cap and a T-shirt with Big Bird’s face on it.
Carroll Spinney’s The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch)
This is a wonderful autobiography by Spinney about his experiences playing both characters and working inside both of the puppets. If you haven’t read it, find it while it’s still in print.
Noah Wyle visits Big Bird
During the fall of 1994, two shows premiered that defined my television viewing for a decade: Friends and ER. ER star Noah Wyle (also a Big Bird fan) guest starred on Sesame Street and did a segment where he plays a doctor who treats Maria in the hospital and later visits Big Bird in his nest and they sing “Sing”.
After Spinney passed, I went online and bought a couple of small plush Big Birds. I have one (holding the cupcake) for my day job desk and another one for my at-home collection, where he has a special bookshelf spot. I was glad I went online shopping when I did because the Big Bird merchandise was selling out fast.