Top News

Halifax magician meets childhood hero, the man behind Big Bird

Halifax magician David Johnston got to present some of his balloon creations to Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who’s played Big Bird on Sesame Street since 1969, last weekend in Hamilton, Ont.
Halifax magician David Johnston got to present some of his balloon creations to Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who’s played Big Bird on Sesame Street since 1969, last weekend in Hamilton, Ont. - Contributed

David Johnston, a full-time Halifax-based magician, discovered last weekend that he had more in common with a childhood idol than he imagined.

Johnston, who performs as the Amazing Mr. J., made a road trip to Ontario for the chance to meet puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street from its inception in 1969.

Spinney was a guest at Hamilton Comic Con for what was billed as his final appearance in Canada, and Johnston said he got to spend some quality time with the performer.

“He said just before he got Sesame Street he was into puppeteering in the early ’60s and he was asked to do birthday parties, which I do now, professional kids shows and birthdays,” Johnston said during an interview.

“The kids came up to him and were like, ‘That’s nice, but do you do any balloon animals?’ And he said, ‘Well, no, I don’t do any balloon animals.’ I said, ‘We should have teamed up.’

“It was a fun moment.”

It was announced Wednesday that Spinney, 84, would be stepping away from the beloved roles. Two puppeteers will take his place.

At the same time, he’s giving up public appearances.

Johnston, 45, said Spinney’s work was a significant part of his youth.

“Sesame Street was a staple. You’d buy the records. You’d have the birthdays with the cakes.”

So he packed his Sesame Street memorabilia in the car, intent on meeting his hero.

“It was one of those things. I just had to take the chance,” said Johnston.

“It was sort of a pilgrimage.”

He got to talk with the puppeteer for a half-hour and gave him a couple of examples of his work.

“I do balloons, and I made a big balloon of Big Bird and a big balloon of Oscar,” Johnston said.

“The thing that was amazing was, after giving them to him, he just goes right into the Big Bird voice. He goes, ‘Oh, what a wonderful balloon.’ Your inner child is thinking, ‘It’s Big Bird, the voice coming out of this man.’ And the Oscar the Grouch balloon, he didn’t miss a beat, he comes right out as Oscar and he goes, ‘I could stick that with a pin and turn it into trash.’ ”

In addition to autographed pictures, Johnston got a souvenir piece of plumage from the eight-foot character.

“He gave me a feather from the Big Bird costume, which is going to go in a prized place.”

Spinney has received four Daytime Emmy Awards recognizing his work on Sesame Street and two Grammy Awards for related recordings, but Johnston got to bestow his personal gratitude.

“I think it’s so great, giving recognition to these icons of our youth,” he said.

“His spirit and his wit is still sharp as a tack. The glow was there behind his eyes.”

Recent Stories