Spinney, who was born in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1933, and worked as a puppeteer and cartoonist after serving in the Air Force, met Jim Henson at a puppeteering festival in 1962. In 1969, Henson asked Spinney to join the cast of Sesame Street, a revolutionary new show that was formulated not only to distract children, but also to educate them. Spinney was given the two characters he played until retirement: Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, who were both realized visually by the late costume designer Kermit Love. Oscar debuted as an orange creature, but quickly transformed into a disheveled, grumpy green monster with heavy brows, who, to this day, can make me laugh. He, too, reminds me of my Nana, and, in a way, many other people I know who were born and raised in New York: deeply kind at their cores, but unfriendly on the exterior; a product of a city where you’re exposed to too many different kinds of people to be able to hate anyone, but nevertheless, you have to be a little bit hard to protect yourself.
Spinney has called both characters his “alter-egos.” Carl Goodman, executive director of the Museum of Moving Image (MOMI) in Queens, which opened a permanent exhibition of Jim Henson’s work in 2017, notes that the values both characters embody (such as love, forgiveness, honesty, and bravery) are important, especially in today’s political environment. “They teach children things they might not be learning from today’s world, and especially the media,” he says.