Did you see the New York Times headline Original Big Bird, Caroll Spinney, Leaves ‘Sesame Street’ After Nearly 50 years. What were your thoughts? Initially I was sad, which is unusual because I’m usually dancing around and giving high fives when someone retires. I think of retirement as the time when you finally get to rest a little. Slow down, get out of bed later in the morning, and not to the sound of an alarm. Retirement is a time in your life to sit and sip a cup of coffee while greeting the day, then take a hike and have lunch with friends. I realize that’s not always the case in retirement. People are often forced into retirement because of illness, or when a company restructures or downsizes. Those are realities for many these days
So why was I sad when I heard the actor who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for nearly fifty years was retiring? I thought about it while I walked my dogs. I realized, like many people, I grew up with Big Bird and Oscar on the front stoop of the neighborhood brownstone. Well, not literally but at times it felt like it. I’d watch from my living room, sitting criss-cross-applesauce, with long pigtails [like those in the image]. The vacant space my baby teeth once occupied patiently awaiting adult teeth that would eventually move into the void. I might be wearing something that didn’t match—plaid and stripes—that was my style. But I’d be watching, completely mesmerized, and learning from the actors and Muppets alike.
This past summer I took the advice of one of my current role models, Questlove, and I went to the movie theater and saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I was completely drawn in again, eating popcorn and drinking a soda in the incredibly comfy stadium seat. I cried a few times as I watched. Seeing the simple, sweet, connection between Mr. Rogers and Koko—the lowland gorilla who became famous because of her use of sign language and communication—brought an incredible heaviness to my heart. I had seen in the news Koko had recently passed in her sleep at the age of 46, so it was timely. After the movie I felt (and still do feel) a sincere sadness for children growing up today. Do they have anyone like Mr. Rogers to watch on a screen and hear “There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.” My parents were divorcing at the time and I was often confused through the transition into dual households, and ‘step’ siblings [Uh, we have six kids in our family, that’s plenty thanks]. My Mom remarried a man who was unhappy and angry and did not accept me for the curious five year old I was. Mr. Rogers’ words were reassuring to me then. TV became a light-hearted place I could tune in to, learn, and a place to see role models. I especially loved Electric Company, Captain Kangaroo (Mr. Green Jeans!), the Lawrence Welk Show, Hee Haw, Planet of the Apes, and eventually American Bandstand and Soul Train.
Today I’m completely disconnected from even being remotely aware of what a five year old watches. I’m not even sure I’ve ever had cable TV as an adult. But I still occasionally enjoy getting lost in a really well written show, or a documentary. And as today moves forward I’m no longer feeling sad because Caroll Spinney is retiring. He is 84 after all! I’m incredibly happy for him and his family. I want to tell him I hope he fully understands the impact he’s had on so many children for nearly five decades. I know how much the friendship between Big Bird and Oscar meant to me. I truly wish Mr. Spinney the best retirement, filled with good health, and everything he desires.
Cheers, and many thanks, to all the role models out there!