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Words of Wisdom on Aging From Big Bird

The man inside Big Bird says doing one thing can make all the difference


(This essay has been reprinted with permission from the publishers of 80 Things to Do When You Turn 80, edited by Mark Evan Chimsky and released in March 2017. Caroll Spinney has been the man inside Big Bird since Sesame Street began.)

Now that I am 82 years old, I realize how important one thing can be — and that is to make plans. Always have something to look forward to. It has gotten me through life and has given me so many wonderful memories to look back on.

For example, when I was a young boy of 8 years old, I saw my first puppet show. Right then and there I decided I wanted to be a puppeteer and I set the plan in motion.

Looking forward to something, whether it be a trip somewhere or a visit to the people I care about, is what gets me excited about life.

Big Bird: The Early Years

My mother made me a flannel snake and I bought a monkey puppet for 5 cents. I made some bench seats and put up signs: “Puppet show in Spinney’s barn — 2 cents!” Sixteen people came to see my show and when it was all over, I counted my 32 cents and made plans to do another show!

All through my school years, I performed with my puppets, always adding a new puppet or storyline so I eventually had quite a repertoire. My plan was to be on television. Sure enough, I landed a job on Bozo’s Big Top in Boston. For almost 10 years, I played Bozo’s sidekicks — Mr. Lion, Grandma Nellie, Kooky Kangaroo, Flip Flop, and many more. And of course, I put on puppet shows.

The Quest for Something Bigger

However, although it was a lot of fun, I was feeling like I wanted to do something more meaningful and important.

So, in 1969, I drove to Salt Lake City to attend the Puppeteers of America’s annual convention. I had built an elaborate show using new puppets and animation that I had designed and filmed. I wanted to mix the two mediums. My plan was to wow everyone with this new way of putting on a show and I had hopes of it leading to something bigger and better.

At first, that didn’t happen. Someone had turned on a huge spotlight that washed out my animation so I couldn’t see the background that my puppets were meant to interact with. It seemed like a total disaster and I was so disappointed. Nothing had gone as planned.

But as I was packing everything up, I heard a gentle voice behind me say, “I liked what you were trying to do!” It was Jim Henson.

We talked awhile and something bigger and better did happen! He said he was scouting for a puppeteer to play two characters on a brand-new show called Sesame Street and would I like the job? I nearly fainted . . . but I said, “Yes!” Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch were born that day.

Have Puppets Will Travel

I had always dreamed of traveling the world and certainly Sesame Street helped with that. But it was always for work and always when and where they said it would be.

It wasn’t until I met my wife, Debra, that I found my true traveling partner. We both have wanderlust in our veins. At any given point in the year, we are planning a journey for the future.

Naturally, when we were younger, it was easier to navigate the globe. Just pack things up, get on the plane, train, or automobile — and go!

The years have flown by and I still don’t let Mother Nature get in my way. We are eagerly looking forward to going on a European river cruise this summer. The anticipation is so much a part of the trip. And since I fell and gave myself a nasty concussion that affects my balance, I am planning to bring along a cane and a folding wheelchair. We’ve made plans and we are going — by hook or by crook!

Looking forward to something, whether it’s a trip somewhere or a visit to the people I care about, is what gets me excited about life. It’s been a philosophy that I have always followed and will continue to do so. I wonder, where will we travel next year?

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