Flying High As 'Big Bird'

Caroll Spinney
CBS/The Early Show
Caroll Spinney will be the first person to tell you that he's probably the most famous person you've never heard of.

With his work as the curmudgeonly Oscar the Grouch, holed up in his trash, can and everyone's favorite feathered friend, Big Bird, Spinney has been delighting adults and children worldwide for more than 30 years.

And now, for the first time, the man behind two of the most beloved Muppets is stepping forward to tell his stories and lessons he has learned as a muppeteer. It's in his new book"The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the dark genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons from a Life in Feathers."

He visits The Early Show to talk about it. Read an excerpt from the book:

Chapter 1


No one really listens to anyone else, and if you try it for awhile you'll see why. -Mignon McLaughlin

Do you know how to get to Sesame Street? Some people have found the way easily. I took a more scenic route.

When I was five, I saw a puppet show for the first time. It was a version of "The Three Little Kittens." I was very concerned that since the little kittens had lost their mittens, they would be punished by not being allowed to have any pie. Great relief when in the end they got their pie after all!

After the show, the players came out front to take their bows with their Steiff puppets, and I saw how a whole show could be done with little things on your hands. This idea stayed with me, and when I saw a puppet at a rummage sale a couple of years later, I put him on my hand, and I knew that I had to have him. The puppet was a monkey who had such a large hole in his head that my finger wobbled around inside. He cost a nickel.

I paired him up with a stuffed snake that my mother had made from green flannel. My family didn't have much money, so my mother would make us things like that for Christmas. With some orange crates, and curtains made from borrowed cloth, I fashioned a little puppet theater. I put a sign on our old barn: puppet show! two cents! Sixteen people came and paid, and I had an audience.

I can't imagine what I did with only the monkey and the snake to keep people entertained for half an hour. But as I recall, everyone left with smiles on their faces, and I had thirty-two cents in my hand. In 1942, that was enough money to go to the movies three times. I already wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up. After this show, I decided that I would also become a puppeteer. By that time I was eight years old.

It was my mother who really started my career. She secretly enlisted the help of my brother Donald to make my combination Christmas and birthday gifts (I'm only five hours younger than Christmas day) for my ninth year.

On Christmas morning, there was a mysterious something sitting next to the tree, hidden under a blanket. My mother whisked the cover away like a magician to reveal a beautiful puppet theater! Under the tree were eight puppets that she had built herself, in bright satiny colors that would look fine on the stage. With those puppets and that theater I had everything I needed to do a Punch and Judy show. My mother was from England, and she thought that Punch and Judy was a good way to get started in puppets.

The more I gave shows, the more I felt the power that one has when one is performing. All these people would sit in a room and listen to everything that I said. I did all the character voices: little girl voices, an old lady voice, and a ghost voice. The audience listened, and clapped at the end, and paid me to do it. What could be a better way to make a living than to perform? I knew that I would wind up in the world of entertainment.

Puppet shows were the way I made money during junior high and high school. When I needed money to go to art school, puppet shows helped me pay for my tuition. In college, I studied commercial art because it seemed like a secure way to make a living based on my talents and abilities. It has served me well over the years. But I always looked for my next chance to put on a show.

Before I could finish art school, I joined the Air Force because I was afraid I'd be drafted into the Army to fight in Korea. I found myself stationed in Las Vegas drawing large pictures of bombs for training aids. Due to the heat of the desert, we started our workdays at 5:30 a.m. and were finished by two in the afternoon. This left me with a lot of free time. Drawing advertising cards got me a job with a local television station. That was the foot in the door that I needed to show the station manager my idea for Rascal Rabbit, a puppet show for kids. Eventually, he gave me a weekly half-hour time slot. The television industry was only eight years old, and I was part of it.

Rascal Rabbit was only on the air for a couple of months before I was transferred to Germany, but once I tasted performing live for the camera, I knew that was what I wanted to do. There wasn't much difference, especially in the days before videotape, between putting on a live puppet show and putting on a television show. I got the same thrill, only magnified a thousand times because of the much greater exposure. Even though I couldn't see the audience, I knew they were there, and in far larger numbers than could fit in any theater. Having done it once, I knew I would find a way to get back to television again...

Excerpted from "The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch)" by Caroll Spinney with J Milligan Copyright© 2003 by Caroll Spinney with J Milligan. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.