Saturday, February 24, 2018

Meeting Caroll Spinney

Ever have dreams come true?  I have.  A few times.  I had one such dream come true in September 2016 at DragonCon in Atlanta, GA.  The only way I can finally make that dream better is to actually go to a certain studio in Queens, NY, and put my feet on the Street.

A little back-story:
One of my friends e-mailed me from across the country that "Caroll Spinney is going to be in Atlanta at DragonCon.  Are you going?"  Would I?  Well, considering how much of my life has been affected by this man?  I'd better!

My earliest remembrance is an old record album with a greeting from Gordon and Susan followed by a voice that would make me grin upon every life-long hearing of it:  "Oh, Gordon!  Susan!!"  The Sesame Street Cast Album was mine, and the star of the whole thing (to me) was Big Bird.  Because of Big Bird, "I Just Adore 4" as a favorite number, yellow is a color I think of as a joyful color, Ornithology was an interest of mine as a kid (at the book fair, I remember buying all books about birds!), and my hero of all my toy "performances" was either Big Bird or Snoopy.
As a matter of fact, Sesame Street was my first introduction to The Muppets, and so while I do love (and collect) Kermit the Frog, Big Bird was at the top of that Muppet heap for me.  I never considered him a leader, but he was the Muppet's star character in my eyes.  Even during the Elmo-coup of the Street (as some of us called it), Big Bird was always, and is, the star of Sesame Street.  He's been able to make me laugh, cry, and it's not just a thing from childhood, but even today.

And how?

We have to credit the person that is Big Bird's inner most soul: Caroll Spinney.  This is a genius who, despite a failing show at a Puppeteers of America convention, Jim Henson saw more in him.  He was hired to come perform on a new show Jim worked on with Joan Ganz Cooney.  Here, using all his previous years' experience of puppetry in other shows, he was able to bring to life the iconic bird and the greenest Grouch, Oscar, ever to appear on TV or movies.  Indeed, Jim saw more in Spinney who just kept giving more and more and more of himself to the rest of the world.

I was already interested in cartooning as a kid thanks to Peanuts; but, upon learning that Jim Henson had a graphic design background and that Caroll Spinney had drawn cartoons all his life I was more determined than ever to create from pencil and pen and paper.  There was more joy to bring to the world and I felt compelled from these inspiring greats to be one of those many people to bring that happiness to others.

This 6 year old, 8'2" tall yellow bird brings me joy.  I've created a good collection of items over the years, from my own childhood and even today.  I have a great collection of items that, as I look at them, remind me of more joyful years, of happier times, and stories that taught me about life when there wasn't anyone else there to do it.  Caroll Spinney still doesn't realize it, but he's probably one of my best childhood friends!

Dragon Con 2016
So, that he would be 6 hours away at a convention where I can finally go meet him?  You bet!  With only a few days to go, friends stepped forward to tend my pets (I'm grateful to Angela and Brad for this), another friend offered to let me stay at her family's house in Atlanta (thankful to Lori), and no entry without a ticket, offered to me by one of my dear friends Steve Troop, also a guest that year!  Everything quickly fell into place meaning I was going to have a chance to meet one of my heroes!

I made the 6 hour trip from Memphis, TN, to Atlanta, GA, and found my way late to the apartment where I'd be staying.  I woke the next morning, we loaded up and went to the subway system, arrived at the convention hall, and I began making my way around, mainly through the puppetry track of the convention.

During that convention, I had the opportunity to meet other great folks from Sesame Street: Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, Tyler Bunch, and the ever lovely Pam Arcerio!  They led great panels and discussions, and favorable workshops.  One of my favorite moments during a workshop was when Leslie the Fairy took Muley and performed him in front of the crowd!

Then, my friend, Lori, called and said, "Get downstairs now.  He's here!"

The Meeting
HE'S HERE!  Those words rang through my head as I feverishly hastened my way to his location, directions she was dictating to me on my phone.  My attention was focused, I swore I wouldn't fan-boy out (and I didn't, yet).  There he was.  She was talking to me while I stood in line and said, "I'll see you at the end of the line, but remember: don't cry yet."

Yes.  I'm a man.  I'm not afraid to admit I cry - I'm that steadfast in my masculinity.

I finally got nearby, and his handler asked me which photo I would like to have signed, if I had anything else I'd like signed.  I asked if he could draw a Big Bird sketch, but the handler said it would be too costly (dang!).  I got to him, greeted, said, "You've always been a huge inspiration for both cartooning and puppetry, and I'm extremely grateful for your work and career."

"Thank you," he said.  "I'm going to sign this as 'Hey, Kevin' because that's how Big Bird would greet you.  By saying 'hey.'"

I gushed.

"Interesting story," he continued, "When I was in the Air Force, I illustrated a comic strip titled Harvey and did other comic work.  The editor called me into a meeting one day and told me that since I was working for the publication, I couldn't sign my artwork any longer so I stopped.  Eventually, one of the generals saw a cartoon I drew and loved it.  He sent down for the original, and got it but it didn't have my signature on it.  So, he checked around and finally found out I did the art and called on me to come to his office.  I showed up and he asked me 'Why didn't you sign this?' and I told him that I was told not to.  He called my superior in and told him, 'From this day forth you must have signatures on all artwork published.'  Then, in front of the editor, he had me sign my artwork."

He then noticed some other items I had in my hands for signatures.  His wife, Debbie, reached for the items.  One item I had was the book "The Wisdom of Big Bird" which he signed (I learned later he drew a little Big Bird sketch in them).  I was a big supporter of the "I Am Big Bird" documentary, and had the cover for that and told him I was a backer.  He was thankful to hear that and said that he was still "surprised that people care" about his story!  I told him that I interviewed the producers of that documentary, and he was interested in that.

Of course, I had some other books, but the one that caught his eye was his written and illustrated "How To Be A Grouch" book that I've had and kept in pristine shape since I was a kid.  "Wow," he said, "This looks brand new!"  Debbie agreed.  I told him it was one of my favorite books as a kid and that I would sometimes try to draw from it.  He said, "The publishers asked me if I would do a book, and I said yes.  So, I wrote this story and drew the images.  Finally, I was finished and I sent it all down to the publisher; but, I never heard anything.  Not for a long time, so I called them.  The editor looked all over, but called me and said 'I'm sorry, we've lost your book.'  All my original illustrations and the text - all gone.  So, eventually, that editor either quit his job or lost it, and the next guy came in and was cleaning out the desk drawers and there, deep in a drawer and to the back, was my envelope with my original drawings and the text in it.  Finally, "How To Be A Grouch" was published.  This looks very nice!"  He attempted to hand it back to me, but I pushed it back, "No, please, sign it."  "But, that'll mess it up!"  I said, "Oh, no sir, this is for me.  You wrote it, and you drew it, your signature will make it much better!"  He signed it to me from himself, Big Bird, and Oscar, just as he'd signed all the other books and more.

"May I have a photo with you?"  I asked, and he and Debbie agreed.  I walked around the table, posed with Muley, and the photo was taken.  "Who is this?"  He asked, looking at Muley.  I said, "He's Muley."  Muley replied, "I'm a mule."  Caroll said, "And very likeable."  "You, too," said Muley.  I think Caroll chuckled.

I had a moment more and I asked, "Next time you're at the Street, can you do me a favor and tell Big Bird that Kevin from Memphis, TN, says hi?"

"Oh, sure, I suppose I could," Caroll said.

Debbie spoke up, "Or, maybe Big Bird could say hi to Kevin now."

"I guess he could," Caroll said.  "Oh, I mean - "

"Hey, Kevin!" said Big Bird.

Muley and my signed collectibles back in the bag, I thanked both Caroll and Debbie and walked toward the exit curtain.  There stood my pal, Lori, "Well?"

"Big Bird said 'Hey' to me," I said with a quivering lip.

Lori smiled, "You can fan-boy now." 
Yeah, I did.

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