Ryan Dosier – On Wednesday night this week, yours truly traveled about three hours north from where I live to Champaign, Illinois to the University of Illinois to be in attendance as the legendary Caroll Spinney visited to talk about his amazing life and career. Obviously, this was a huge deal for me, as Mr. Spinney is an obvious hero of mine so getting the chance to see him in person was just astounding. If you’re wondering why The Muppet Mindset didn’t mention this appearance anywhere, I was asked by the group organizers to keep it quiet and not spread it around to try and keep it within the school… but luckily I was able to attend.
I arrived early enough to get a seat in the second row, directly behind my friends Josh Hankemeir and his wife Jeni Rizio, who you may remember runs Caroll’s personal website (CarollSpinney.net), and whom we interviewed a few months ago. The both of them are good friends with Caroll and his wife Debi and it was so much fun getting to hang out with them for the rest of the night.
Soon after I arrived, the Spinneys arrived as well. I was incredibly intimidated so introduce myself to Caroll, so I just stayed silent for awhile. Caroll’s wife Debi sat down next to Josh and I garnered some courage to introduce myself to her. Debi is honestly the sweetest, most engaging person. I had such wonderful conversations with her and after I gave her my business card, she promised she would introduce me to Caroll. She really is the best!
Soon after that, the lecture/talk/whatever got started as Caroll took the stage. I can’t tell you what a joy it was to listen to Caroll discuss his life and his career in person. I’ve read Caroll’s magnificent book The Wisdom of Big Bird, I’ve seen videos of him talking about his career, but getting to see the man himself tell these timeless stories again in person is an unforgettable memory for me. He recounted his story of developing Oscar’s voice from a grumpy cab driver, how Jim Henson hired him after a disastrous puppet performance about which Jim said, “I liked what you were trying to do,” and stories of working with Bob Hope, traveling to China, and being a truly saint-like man who has influenced generations of children.
The most powerful story he told, and one I don’t think I had heard before, involved a sick young boy named Joey. Joey’s father wrote Caroll a letter telling him about his son. He was dying of cancer and was very, very sad. The only time young Joey would smile was when Big Bird came on the television. Joey’s father asked Caroll if he would call Joey. Of course Caroll did, and spoke to Joey as both Big Bird and Oscar for a few minutes. A few weeks later, Caroll received another letter from Joey’s father. As Joey hung up the phone with Caroll he turned to his parents, smiled, and said, “Big Bird is my friend and he loves me.” And… well, then Joey closed his eyes peacefully, with a smile. There were tears in the eyes of everyone I saw in the audience, and Caroll had to hold back his own tears. It was a truly beautiful, moving tale of Big Bird’s incredible influence, not just on a mass scale, but on a micro, personal level as well.
Throughout the lecture, Caroll would bring out the one and only Oscar the Grouch to keep the attention of some of the young kids in the audience with their parents. It was truly incredible watching as Caroll and Oscar argued with each other, as Oscar insulted Caroll, and as Caroll controlled the whole room with Oscar’s grouchiness. There I was, watching two television legends just a few feet in front of me. It was amazing, to say the least. Caroll proved himself over and over again to be every bit as wonderful as I could have hoped. Touching, hilarious, brilliant, and just plain delightful.
After the lecture came the most exciting moment: a photo-op/autograph session with Caroll and Oscar! It was completely unexpected, but Caroll is such a fantastic person that he sat for over an hour signing things, taking pictures with Oscar, and talking to the folks who were in the audience. This gave me two irreplaceable new items for my collection: a signed picture of Big Bird and my picture with Oscar the Grouch and Caroll Spinney. As we were waiting to get a picture, I kept telling Jeni and Josh that I was going to frown in the picture with Oscar. However, once I got up there and Oscar shook my hand and said, “Hey fella,” I couldn’t help but grin like a crazy person. After the picture I hugged Oscar… and I’m just now realizing that’s the first time I’ve hugged a Muppet. Wow. Anyway… here’s the picture.
In the end, my time spent with Caroll Spinney, his wife Debi, Oscar the Grouch, and fellow Muppet fans was yet another insanely amazing experience in my Muppet fan life. Caroll Spinney is perhaps the nicest, most genuine person I’ve had the honor of meeting. But beyond that, he is an icon and a hero and an undeniable legend. Meeting Caroll was like meeting a part of Jim Henson himself, a man who has committed his life to teaching children and making the world smile. Thank you, Caroll.
I also have to say a special thank you to I Am Big Bird director Dave LaMattina for letting the Spinneys know I was coming to the event.
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, email@example.com