Spinney, who was born in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1933, and worked as a puppeteer and designer after serving in the Air Force, met Jim Henson at a puppet festival in 1962. In 1969, Henson asked Spinney to join the cast of sesame street, a groundbreaking new show that’s been formulated to not only entertain children, but also educate them. Spinney received the two characters he played until his retirement: Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, both of which were visually done by the late costume designer Kermit Love. Oscar debuted as an orange creature, but quickly turned into a disheveled, grumpy green monster with thick eyebrows, which 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 nice inside, but hostile on the outside; a product of a town where you’re exposed to too many different types of people to hate anyone, but nonetheless, you have to be a little tough to protect yourself.
Spinney called the two 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 the two characters embody (such as love, forgiveness, honesty and bravery) are important, especially in the current political context. “They teach kids things that maybe they don’t learn from today’s world, and especially from the media,” he says.