Big Bird, But Not Spinney, at Kennedy Center Honors

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Caroll Spinney with the other Muppet he made famous, Oscar the Grouch, at the Montclair Film Festival in New Jersey.

It was sad serendipity for “Sesame Street” on Sunday, Dec. 8, as the long-running, pioneering show for children was feted as part of the Kennedy Center Honors.

Even as the honors were bestowed, members of the current cast and millions of fans around the world had earlier in the day learned of the death of Caroll Spinney. Spinney, 85, was the gentle puppeteer who was the creator of — and literally embodied — the awkward, curious and joyful yellow-feathered body of Big Bird, perhaps the most visible and memorable member of the Muppet menagerie and family.

According to reports, Spinney, a genial, kindhearted, bearded man, passed away earlier that day before “Sesame Street” co-founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett accepted the honor on behalf of the show itself, the late Muppets creator Jim Henson and Muppets artists like Frank Oz and, of course, Spinney.

It was a milestone for “Sesame Street,” the first television show to be recognized by the Kennedy Center Honors, now in their 42nd year. The sparkling and diverse group of 2019 honorees included two-time Oscar winner Sally Field; evocative pop singer Linda Ronstadt; legendary R&B/funk group Earth, Wind & Fire (in the person of original members Verdine White, Ralph Johnson and Philip Bailey); and Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony and co-founder of the New World Symphony. CBS will broadcast the show on Sunday, Dec. 15, at 8 p.m.

Here is how Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter spoke about this year’s honorees: “In this class of honorees, we are witnessing a uniquely American story — one that is representative of so many cultural touchstones and musical moments that make our nation great. When I look at this class, I see the hopes, aspirations and achievements not just of the honorees, but of the many generations they have influenced and continue to influence. We’re not just looking back. These honorees are urging us to look forward as well.”

This group, as has been the case in previous classes, continues a trend toward inclusion and broadening of genres and vision for the Kennedy Center Honors, of which George Stevens Jr. was founding producer.

From the beginning, the honors were part red carpet, part television show, a prestigious kind of lifetime achievement awards ceremony in the performing arts. Over 200 recipients have been honored over the years: classical music composers and artists; theater and film writers, directors and actors; choreographers and dancers. Over the years, the genres grew to include all sorts of music, including jazz, rock, folk, soul, gospel, country and bluegrass, as the Kennedy Center widened its horizons and accessibility (witness the Reach expansion).

This year’s proceedings were, as usual, full of the presence of celebrities — performers honoring the honorees. For instance, country superstar Carrie Underwood offered a moving tribute to Ronstadt, giving a powerful rendition of her 1977 hit “Blue Bayou.”

How one responds to the show and songs and parade of tributes often is a function of experience, longevity, taste and age. We know, for instance, that Ronstadt retired from singing in 2009, but many of us remember her from our own more youthful years as an energetic and attractive singer with a remarkable vocal range that could verge on the operatic.

We remember Sally Field for being an actress with an equal range of expressiveness. One never quite forgets her emotional screen performances (“Norma Rae” and “Places in the Heart”) and how she surprised with the diversity of her stage roles, including a Broadway debut in Edward Albee’s controversial “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” and her portrayal of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Not bad for an actress who had to establish her bona fides by overcoming her initial rise to fame as “The Flying Nun” on television.

Yesterday’s celebration marked the third straight year that President Donald Trump chose not to attend. Not that the proceedings were completely without the currents of current politics; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was in attendance Sunday night, received a standing ovation, for one thing.

But politics are usually transcended at the event. The performing arts have a way of establishing a mood of unity and sociability, at least on the surface.

That’s especially true when Big Bird is in the house, and when the occasion honors a man like Spinney, both shy and mammothly inventive.

Spinney’s contributions to “Sesame Street” were enormous, and that’s saying something when in the company of a Jim Henson. In an almost needful counterpoint to Big Bird, Spinney created the puppet Oscar the Grouch, which he once reportedly described as being like a cab driver from the Bronx.

By all accounts, he much preferred to disappear into the eight-foot-plus persona and incarnation of Big Bird: big-beaked, big-hearted, lighting up like the sun.

When my son, as an appropriate age, discovered “Sesame Street,” he preferred the Cookie Monster. I still remember him, as the small child he was then, roaming rooms in search of “cook-ees!”

Even in sad serendipity, Big Bird remains a star among stars.

That’s thanks to Spinney, who gave him birth and gave him a different sort of flight, straight into our memories.

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