A walk down memory lane. That was how it felt being in the Marriott’s Imperial Ballroom on Friday at 1 PM. When the original, infamous theme song started playing, cheers erupted throughout. That song alone brought back a warm fuzzy feeling, like snuggling with your Snuffleupagus. Family had arrived in the household via television.
Caroll Spinney, the legendary puppeteer and illustrator who made Big Bird an American Icon, said it best when he summed up his 45 years on the beloved children’s show Sesame Street: “It feels like fifteen.” Sure does. Because time flies when you’re having fun. For the audience at “A Visit From Sesame Street Friends,” the hour with Emilio Delgado (Luis), Bob McGrath (Bob), Roscoe Orman (Gordon), Spinney, and his wife, Debra Spinney, flew. Just like the small slice of life called childhood, when Sesame Street, and its many thoughtful lessons, looms large.
Travel issues delayed the arrival of McGrath and Orman, but their entrances gave the audience cause to cheer multiple times, and laugh, as McGrath exclaimed, “Better never than early!” when he sat down. The time also allowed Delgado and Spinney to first share fun stories, like how they joined the show.
“It was meant to be,” Delgado said. “What can I tell you?” He was working in California, joking that he was looking at his last unemployment check, when he got the call to audition. Two months later, he was off to New York, happy to have a job, and unaware how special the show would become to him. Spinney put him at ease in the beginning, helping him to suspend disbelief while acting against a nine-foot-tall bird.
Spinney, who at 84 uses a wheelchair, still has a sharp mind and good-natured wit, quipping at one time that he “used to have good balance.” He had to hold his hand above his head while in costume to make the puppet talk, but that never stopped him from tackling strenuous physical feats while dressed as Big Bird. Spinney ice skated and rode a unicycle, among other things, while in costume, causing many directors to “hold their breath.”
He’s also still got his magic touch with children, answering their questions with the gentle spirit of our favorite bird.
Why is Oscar grouchy? “I think it’s because Big Bird picked all his flowers.”
Why does Oscar live in a trashcan? “Well, the rent is cheaper.”
Why should you not pluck Big Bird’s feathers? “They don’t grow back,” which is what Spinney used to tell kids who loved to pull at those 6,000 glorious, hot glued, yellow fluffs.
Delgado loved that his character fell in love with and married Maria on the show, and both men talked about the importance of the show in teaching kids about such heady topics as death, like when Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, died. Instead of pretending Mr. Hooper had just left, they used his passing as a teaching moment, connecting with kids through Big Bird, who asked, “So who will make me my birdseed milkshakes now?” Delgado and Spinney agreed it was a courageous decision and done compassionately.
When McGrath joined the panel, he also talked about the impact of this storyline, professionally and personally. He was able to make Will Lee laugh in the hospital the day before he died. He talked about the show being cognizant of, and reaching, deaf children through the use of sign language, and his own beginnings on the show. During an early episode his character told Big Bird that he had been a bugler in the Army. Big Bird, not understanding, exclaimed, “You were a burglar! Shame, Bob!” After that, and ever since, Spinney and his wife Debra have greeted McGrath with that: “Shame, Bob!”
McGrath, a singer by trade, always wanted to have his own variety show, geared toward teenagers, as he had a recording career in Japan and had been on the TV show Sing Along with Mitch in the 1960s. “I was not an actor,” he said, and he didn’t know who Jim Henson was when his friend and then Sesame Street producer, David Connell, asked him to audition. As soon as he watched reels of Jim Henson early work with his Muppets, he knew he wanted to join Sesame Street.
“It’s been an incredible period of my life,” McGrath said, also citing the amazing scripts that helped them all really connect with kids.
“The jokes were there already,” Delgado said, “so we just went with it.” He spoke about how in addition to great comedy writers, child psychologists, educators, and researchers worked tirelessly to make the scripts kid-friendly and appropriate in every way. Kids needed to be put first.
This was especially important when Mr. Snuffleupagus, who had only been visible to the kids and Big Bird on the show, was revealed to the adults. Delgado said around that time the show had received lots of letters from kids talking about child abuse but that they weren’t believed by adults. The reveal was, in effect, a lesson for adults.
Delgado then talked about how his casting diversified the show and reached Spanish-speaking children, which “made those children feel good about themselves… and that’s one the main things that came out of Sesame Street.” Aside from learning numbers and the ABCs, kids from all backgrounds learned to feel significant and have confidence in themselves, something McGrath echoed when recounting a story of meeting an American Airlines employee who said the show steeled in her a resolve to be the first in her family to graduate from high school.
And, adults—at least the ones on the show—learned from the kids. Delgado talked about the “Which of these things is not like the other?” segments common on the show and the wrong, but highly intuitive, answers kids often gave. Like the time a young boy, instead of picking the lone white horse in a line-up, picked one of three brown ones, declaring it was different “because that one’s wild.”
In the final minutes of the panel, Orman arrived, taking the stage and giving Spinney—the man who became the beating heart of the show—another (deserved) shout-out: “This is the guy that made it possible for me to get the job,” Orman said pointing at Spinney.
When asked why actors seem to dedicate their whole careers, and lives, to the show, Orman described the show as a family, which is “the essential thread.” Also, that the show is, in and of itself, a mission—nothing is more important than teaching kids how to live, Orman said, which the show continues to do today in 130 countries while tackling complex topics like HIV and autism with honesty and compassion.
Whether reminiscing about how Big Bird once scared 75 young Chinese sailors or the funny English-to-Chinese translation of “Break a leg,” which became an inside joke (it translates as “Your leg is sick”), it’s clear this is a cast that was, and is, a bundle of love. That they are happy to count all their little “sesame seeds”—meaning me and you—as family, too.