Feeling overworked? Burned out? Try holding the attention of 8 million toddlers every week. In a big yellow bird outfit. For 35 years. Caroll Spinney, 70, the man behind Sesame Street's Big Bird (and Oscar the Grouch), told Fast Company how he keeps soaring.
How much of yourself have you been able to bring to the character?
When Big Bird was first built back in 1969, he always looked sad, no matter what you did, and he sounded very purple, if you catch my meaning. Eventually I said, "What he really needs to be is a kid." So I lightened up on the voice and made him sound youthful, and we started playing him as a child of 4 1/2. He eventually grew up to 6, which is old by Sesame standards.
When Elmo appeared, he became hugely popular.
Oh, yes. It was a change for Big Bird. We saw it as an opportunity to teach kids about sibling rivalry. Which is something I bring up when I talk to people in business. New people in an organization should augment your role, not rival it.
Have you ever hit a slump?
We've never reached a miasma, except once. In the seventh year, less than a few weeks into the season, it seemed like, "Gee, we've been doing it too long." It lasted about a week or two. And I've never felt that way again.
How do you jump-start yourself?
The major thing is humor. Humor keeps everyone excited and involved.
You've been invited to the White House and to see Prince Charles — you've even conducted an orchestra. What's next?
Well, I'm sort of a lecturer now. I speak at colleges, children's organizations, corporate events. College kids get very sentimental. I was at Franklin College in Ohio, and a football star comes up to me, 6 feet 2, shoulders 3 feet wide, and the guy has tears in his eyes. He says, "You don't have any idea how much you've meant to me." I get that quite a lot.
Thirty-five years and counting. Will you have trouble letting go?
Well, I can't imagine not wanting to do what I do. I just signed a new three-year contract, and I hope I renew that in three years. I'd like to be the only 80-year-old in history who plays a 6-year-old.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.