Sesame Street's Big Bird is an octogenarian. Well, it's more accurate to say that Carroll Spinney, the man who has played Big Bird (and Oscar the Grouch) for the past 45 years is an octogenarian. I learned this just this past week when reading an article in the Los Angeles Times about a new film based on Spinney's book, I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story. The story brought back wonderful memories.
Sesame Street was a very important part of our home and our kids' lives when they were young. Although our kids loved Big Bird and all the other Sesame "guys," Ernie was the focus of much more attention--at least on one very memorable day in July many years ago.
Our oldest child may have been a little precocious in the area of miniature rubber figurines. Most kids who collect and play-act with little toy statuettes begin around 3 or 4 years old, but our home was a Sesame Street shrine from the moment our son started following Big Bird et al. at age 2. He was too young to even pronounce the characters' names--Cookie Monster was "Cookiebader." His love of Sesame Street miniatures made gift-giving easy--for about $2 each, we gradually accumulated all the critical players in the Sesame Street saga. They populated the replica Sesame Street neighborhood we all built together from recycled cereal boxes and cardboard tubes. Sesame play-acting paused only long enough for us to watch the actual TV show when it came on the air each afternoon.
We vividly recall the time we first learned that Sesame Place, the show's theme park, was in Pennsylvania, not far from where grandparents lived. This was a nearly miraculous development for our son—and, of course, the next trip to Mema's and Grandpa's included a visit to SP. That may have been the most memorable vacation of our boy's childhood. He hid behind Grover's garbage can, climbed into Ernie's bathtub, and ate "Cookiebader" cookies for lunch. "Do they really live here!!??" he asked incredulously. The gift shop even sold a rare figurine that we didn't have at home--Mr. Snuffleupagus, if memory serves--for two bucks, like all the rest of "the guys."
It's that devotion to Sesame Street that made Ernie's (the figurine's) mysterious disappearance one summer afternoon a day that will live in infamy. The characters never went anywhere without our son, and he rarely went anywhere without them. But on that fateful day, as play on the windowsill stage was about to begin, all the characters checked in present and accounted for, but where was Ernie?!! Breathlessly, our little boy ran to tell us of the disaster--Ernie was missing!
And so began a legendary search through the house that turned up just about every other lost toy from the previous two years--but no Ernie! We called friends, grandparents, neighbors--it was an all-points bulletin, we explained to our distraught toddler. Just as we were about to post "lost toy" fliers around the neighborhood, our next door neighbor sheepishly called--his grandson, with whom our son had been playing with the day before, might have accidentally slipped Ernie into his pocket.
Grateful that the crisis was over, we chose not to press charges. All the Sesame guys were reunited and, although I can't be sure, I think I saw Burt shed a tear of relief. I know our son did.
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Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is the author of four books for parents and families, including No Regrets Parenting and 940 Saturdays. He is also a Parents advisor and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at noregretsparenting.com and follow him on Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).
Photo: Image originally from SesameStreet.org