Sunday 15 December 2019

Why we need Mr Rogers, Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch more than ever

By Abby Whitaker, Published The Straits Times, 14 Dec 2019

America is currently in a Mr Rogers renaissance. While television personality Fred Rogers died in 2003, between last year's premiere of the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbour? and actor Tom Hanks' recent portrayal of the sweater-clad saint in A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood, we have become obsessed with Rogers' wisdom.

His kindness, his ability to speak to children and his seemingly unwavering moral compass have inspired new audiences. But he is not the only person who has inspired audiences through children's television.

The late Caroll Spinney did too. Spinney once called himself "the most unknown famous person in the United States".

Most people are better acquainted with his alter ego: A 2.5m-tall canary appropriately named Big Bird. Spinney wore a suit of yellow feathers for nearly 50 years on Sesame Street.

This week, on the same day Sesame Street was honoured by the Kennedy Centre, Spinney died.

His characters, however, will live on and with them the vital role that fantasy plays in teaching children to navigate life.

Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood made its national debut on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1968, with Sesame Street premiering just over a year later. Both programmes were born out of the belief that children's educational programming had more to teach children than the basic ABCs. Neither show shied away from difficult subjects and real-world problems.

The success of both programmes also depended on characters with a special talent for communicating with children.

For Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood, it was Fred Rogers, for Sesame Street, it was Big Bird and his fellow muppets.

Yet, while both had a keen sense of how to reach children, Rogers and Spinney stood at odds with each other on how exactly to teach their young viewers.

Because both shows aired on PBS, the two made appearances on each others' programmes. When Big Bird appeared on Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood in 1981, however, the two disagreed over how to handle the story line.

Rogers believed in teaching children the difference between fantasy and reality. He wanted Spinney to appear as himself and demonstrate to children how he operated the Big Bird puppet.

Spinney refused. In a 2003 interview, Spinney recalled thinking: "I can't believe I'm arguing with Mr Rogers." Yet, maintaining the illusion that Big Bird was real, not a puppet being operated from the inside, was important to him.

Spinney valued children's relationship to Big Bird as a real character and it was not something he was willing to compromise.

After Spinney raised his objections, Rogers reiterated that on his show, they didn't believe in fantasy. Spinney responded: "Mmm, not me."

Instead, the two compromised. Spinney appeared as Big Bird in the make-believe land segment of Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood, where fantasy was allowed, and never interacted on set with Rogers.

But Rogers still maintained control of the narrative. Right before Big Bird's segment, Rogers tried on a full-size, giraffe puppet and told the audience: "When you see big make-believe creatures... on television, you can know that the people inside are just pretending to be something else."

When Mr Rogers appeared on Sesame Street later that year, Spinney turned the tables, reinforcing the value of fantasy.

In the episode, Big Bird was confused about how to tell if his pal Snuffleupagus was real or imaginary. Mr Rogers helped him, demonstrating that things you can see with your eyes and touch with your hands are real.

Big Bird asked: "There's a big difference between imaginary and real, but which one is better?"

Mr Rogers responded: "Which do you think?"

Big Bird paused for a moment and concluded: "I think both are good."

As a role model, Mr Rogers provided us with desperately needed moral guidance, but Spinney inspired his viewers with simpler lessons about navigating our day-to-day lives. Through his characters, he encouraged creativity, while allowing us to be fallible and childish. And to suspend our disbelief for a moment and live in a fanciful world where giant birds can talk and the realities of the world can momentarily be forgotten.

Spinney also taught us that it was okay to be grouchy.

While he is most well known as Big Bird's puppeteer, he was also the puppeteer and soul behind Oscar The Grouch.

Contrary to popular belief, Oscar was never mean-spirited or angry, simply grouchy. He did not like looking on the bright side. In fact, he actively looked towards the dark side and revelled in it.

Spinney identified personally with Big Bird but, as he once said: "After playing Big Bird all day, it is almost therapeutic to switch to Oscar, to live awhile with the exact opposite attitude about life."

Having grown up bullied, isolated and shy, Spinney taught us that sometimes it is okay to be sad. Sometimes it is okay to languish in our own misery, if only for a moment.

In his 2013 memoir, The Wisdom Of Big Bird (And The Dark Genius Of Oscar The Grouch): Lessons From A Life In Feathers, Spinney drew two main lessons that he learnt by embodying Big Bird and Oscar.

From Big Bird, Spinney learnt that there is no such thing as a dumb question and there is no more valuable attribute than being kind.

Big Bird was never afraid to ask questions. He was curious and inquisitive. Big Bird also saw the good in people and led with kindness. Big Bird was and is, Spinney noted, "the kind of person I think we all should be".

From Oscar, Spinney learnt to see the world from a different perspective. He also learnt the freedom of being unfailingly honest. "He gets to say exactly what he wants to say," Spinney commented. "He tells the truth, even when he probably shouldn't."

And sometimes the truth is that the world makes us grouchy and that is okay.

Sesame Street creator Joan Ganz Cooney once said that the reason we care so much about Big Bird and Oscar "is that we know inside those creatures beats the heart of a great human being".

Spinney was a great human being who brought to life two very different characters that still have many lessons to teach us.

The tributes that have poured out to Spinney since his passing, and the enthusiasm for the renaissance of Fred Rogers, demonstrate how much we need their lessons today, perhaps more than ever.

We are in a moment where the lines of fact and fiction have blurred, and in which the digital world, cultural changes and our politics have made things feel impersonal and acerbic.

This has left us craving the kinder, more honest world of Rogers and Spinney. What we can learn from the two men is that we need both a dose of kindness and the ability to escape from the harshness of reality in life. A little Rogers and some Spinney, too.

Spinney may have left us, but his legacy lives on in a suit of yellow feathers and within a dingy old trash can on Sesame Street.

Abby Whitaker is a PhD student in history at Temple University.


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