Remembering Carroll Spinney

08-Dec-19 5:41 PM by
Filed under Fade to Black; Comments Off on Remembering Carroll Spinney

Six years ago, I was having a very bad week. I'd just been dumped, and my first Moth story was an unmitigated disaster — one of the most humiliating moments of my life. Feeling rejected and worthless, I wanted to crawl into a hole and stay there.

But I had tickets to a local convention, so I dragged myself out of the house to the event. The celebrities who were giving autographs that day ranged from old television actors to comic book artists to former pro wrestlers. As I walked the show floor, I was surprised to see Carroll Spinney.

You may not know Spinney's name, but you know his roles: I'd grown up watching him play both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on over 4,400 episodes of Sesame Street. I'd met Spinney once before, at this same convention a few years earlier; I'd already gotten his autograph. But that previous time, there had been a question that I was too nervous to ask him. I never thought I'd get another chance — and here he was.

So I got in line, waited, and finally it was my turn. As he signed another photograph for me, we chatted. I told him that I'd backed the Kickstarter for the documentary about him, I Am Big Bird, which at that time hadn't yet been released. He'd seen some early cuts, and we were both very excited for the final product.

Finally, he handed me the photograph and looked at me expectantly. The conversation was over, and he was waiting for me to move on. If I was ever going to ask him, I had to do it now.

I took a deep breath. "Mr. Spinney," I began, "I hate to put you on the spot like this, but… Could I give you a hug?"

His already gentle grin grew even wider. "Well, sure! That'd be fine. Come around the table," he said, standing up to receive me. Relieved, I wrapped my arms around him, saying, "Thank you, Big Bird."

That day didn't make my struggles go away. But I left that convention feeling like it was going to be okay, because I wasn't alone. There are always going to be people who don't understand or support what you're trying to do. But we can choose to instead focus on the heroes and the helpers who will always be there with a hug when we need it.

Big Bird once said, "Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best and never let a bad day make you feel bad about yourself."

Thank you, Big Bird. For everything.

Carroll Spinney

Carroll Spinney (Dec 26, 1933 – Dec 8, 2019)

Super Megafest 2013: Celebrating celebrities young & old

02-Jan-14 11:25 AM by
Filed under Potpourri; Comments Off on Super Megafest 2013: Celebrating celebrities young & old

Super Megafest, an annual comic book, sci-fi, geek, and nostalgia convention held the weekend before Thanksgiving in Framingham, Mass., has exploded in popularity. When I arrived at 10 AM on the first of 2013's two-day event, the line to get in wrapped around the hotel, and parking was nowhere to be found. It's nearly to the point that the Sheraton can't accommodate all the dealer rooms, speaker panels, and autograph lines, or grow to offer a cosplay competition and other participatory sessions. But for all that, this year's Megafest, of all the seven I've now attended, was a surgical strike for me. Christopher Lloyd was the closest to this year's headliner, and I'd met him at Megafest 2010. I was instead able to focus on celebrities that were less renowned but no less admired for their work in cult hits.

One was Boston native Eliza Dushku, the "evil slayer" from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and star of another cancelled Joss Whedon television series, Dollhouse. I didn't attend her panel (a video of which is available online), but I did get her autograph. In those brief encounters, I always make a point of telling actors how much I liked their less well-known performances, as I imagine it's frustrating for their entire body of work to be overshadowed by a single role. For Ms. Duskhu, I thanked her for the 2007 dark comedy Sex and Breakfast, which I found a fascinating look at the interplay between physical and emotional connections in relationships. She seem surprised to hear this and said the film was "interesting". But she really lit up when I mentioned her cameo on Freddie Wong's YouTube channel, which she said was a lot of fun to shoot.

Other than autograph sessions, hour-long panels of Q&A are often the highlight of any Megafast, but the only panel I was interested in attending this year featured Barbara Eden and Bill Daily, aka Jeannie and Major Healey from the 1960s sitcom I Dream of Jeannie. Both were very genial in their autograph sessions, with Daily especially taking time to chat with attendees. He seemed astonished when he got to his table to find a line of fans waiting for him: "Who are all these people here for?!" he asked. Whether he was sincerely surprised or just being humble, I appreciated his down-to-earth nature. The panel wasn't anything special, and even had a touch of melancholy for being held a year to the day that Jeannie co-star Larry Hagman had passed away, but it was still fun to hear the two actors banter and reminiscence like old friends.

I was going to leave the con at that point, but a new friend enticed me to stay for the next panel, featuring Tom Felton, who played Draco Malfoy in all eight Harry Potter films. He hadn't been on my radar at all until an encounter I had in the Super Megafest hallway, which I then related to Felton during his panel's Q&A: "I was on my way to this panel when I came across a teenage girl who appeared to be having a breakdown: she was crying, tears streaming down her face, and she was having trouble breathing to the point of hyperventilating. I asked her what was wrong — what had happened?!? She took a breath and said, 'I just met Tom Felton!!'" My question to Felton then became, "How do you explain your popularity?" Felton seemed a bit taken aback, saying he'd never been asked that question before. The moderator jumped in and said that I'd have to be a teenage girl to understand. That exchange aside, Felton was a fun and amicable guest, telling anecdotes from the Harry Potter set and, at one attendee's request, even reciting his most famous line: "My father is going to be hearing about this!!"

IMG_4463 For all these actors and their fame and draw, my favorite moment of the entire weekend was perhaps the quietest, and one which surely no one else even noticed. In attendance at Super Megafest was Carroll Spinney, the actor behind Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. I'd first met Mr. Spinney at Super Megafest 2008, but I left that encounter heavy with regret for not having asked him one important question. He was back at Megafest 2011, but having already gotten his autograph years before, I had no occasion to approach him just to ask one question. But I had another chance in 2013 — Spinney is native to this area, and attending Megafest coincides with spending Thanksgiving with family — and this time, I wanted his autograph again, this time as gifts for friends. While he signed, I mentioned that I was one of his Kickstarter supporters, having backed a documentary about his life, I Am Big Bird. The film will be a fitting send-off to the actor, who, at age 80, is nearing retirement.

After chatting a bit about the promising trailer, he handed me the autographed photos. I hesitated. It was now or never. "Mr. Spinney," I began, "I hate to put you on the spot like this, but… can I give you a hug?"

He smiled. "Well, sure! That'd be fine. Come around the table," he said, standing up to receive me. Relieved, I wrapped my arms around him, saying, "Thank you, Bird." For everything.

November was a rough month for me, with two massive, personal disappointments I'd been beating myself up over. It's magical and inexplicable how much that weight was lifted by a hug from Big Bird; I just suddenly felt that everything was going to be okay.

Thank you, Super Megafest, for this moment. I'll treasure it always.

(more…)

The Return of Super Megafest

26-Nov-08 11:16 PM by
Filed under Celebrities, Potpourri; 5 comments.

The weekend before Thanksgiving has become a tradition of celebrities of sci-fi, wrestling, and nostalgia. A half-hour west of Boston, a Sheraton hotel again became the home of the annual Super Megafest, a convention for comic book dealers, cosplayers, and all manner of geeks and fans.

Having attended last year's Megafest, I knew what to expect: a small but full hall of merchandise, with a few smaller aisles of celebrity signings. I'm not a collector and, as appealing as the vintage toys, comics, and posters were, I wouldn't need to budget much time to peruse the various vendors' wares. I'd be there for the stars, who offered not only their autographs but also their time. A fee for their signatures meant the lines to meet these guests would be short, which equated to more time they could spend with each fan. There were actors, wrestlers, artists, and other big names to appeal to everyone, but I narrowed down my must-meet list just three.

Meeting them occurred more quickly than I predicted. Aside from the show floor, there was a too-small conference room in which each celebrity was granted a half-hour moderated Q&A session. No schedule was posted to the show's Web site, so I took a gamble and showed up as late as 2:30 PM on Saturday. At exactly that moment, the first star on my list was taking the stage, followed immediately afterward by the next. I could not have planned my first hour at the Megafest more precisely.

Dawn Wells, famous for her innocent portrayal of Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island, was happy to entertain questions from the fans. Though Ms. Wells now runs a film school in Idaho, most of the discussion was about the role and show she is best known for. Ms. Wells said that in the Sixties, Gilligan's Island was how the rest of the world saw America, though she made no allusion to another group that thought the show was real. More recently, she considered the 2004 reality show based on the series a travesty — "Why would you take anything so wholesome and have Mary Ann and Ginger mud wrestle?" Yet even the original series has its dark rumors, such as that the seven castaways were modeled after the seven deadly sins, with Mary Ann representing envy. "Preposterous," claimed Ms. Wells. During this short session, I did not get the opportunity to ask either of my burning questions: how did she and the Professor feel about the theme song reducing them to "the rest"; and why could the Professor build a radio out of coconuts, but he couldn't repair a hole in a boat?

I bumped into Ms. Wells again later when she was signing autographs, but she seemed preoccupied. I briefly mentioned the book Gilligan's Wake to her, but she'd never heard of it. We then both moved on.

After her Q&A, I kept my seat for Jonathan Frakes, prolific sci-fi actor and director best known for the role of Commander William T. Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He paraded down the room to the theme of TNG, courtesy his own vocal talents — remarkable, since the theme has no words. "Sorry, but I love that song," he grinned. That introduction set the tone for the rest of the session, as Mr. Frakes seemed genuinely amused by absolutely everything: his history, his fans, their questions. I did not expect someone attending his umpteenth convention in 20 years to be so gracious, but there he was. He asked our opinion of the new Star Trek movie. I offered "cautiously optimistic", to which he replied, "I feel the same, except for the 'cautiously' part." He added, "I got to visit the bridge, and it is spec-TAC-ular" (emphasis his). "And the studios are serious about it. For the money they're pumping into it, we could've made three or four more Trek films — NOT THAT I'M BITTER!" Mr. Frakes also had a full portfolio of other roles he was happy to discuss: everything from having recently auditioned for a part on Reaper to his work as host for Alien Autopsy. "I was the spokesperson for the paranormal for several years," he reflected. "'We can't get Stewart, but call Frakes! He'll do anything!' I was the Mikey of sci-fi." This time, I got my turn to ask a question: "I loved Gargoyles. Could you talk about your work as a voice actor?" (two sentences which he interrupted with, "You have excellent taste.") "It's a dream job. You get to go to work in your pajamas." Also: "I don't understand why Gargoyles didn't last longer." That makes two of us.

I later caught up with Mr. Frakes at his autograph table. Just ahead of me was a young girl of six or seven to whom Mr. Frakes was enthusiastically recommending Seussical the Musical. As she left, he commented to me, "She had no idea what I was saying." I disagreed: "You'd be surprised what sticks at that age. I was only eight when my dad sat me down to watch the sequel to a show he'd grown up with." "And he made you watch every episode after that?" "Are you kidding? After that first episode, he didn't have to make me do anything!" "… You were born in 1979?" he asked. I expected this question to lead into an unoriginal crack about how old I made him feel. Instead he nodded sagely and commented, "That's a good age to get into Star Trek." I'd brought along my copy of First Contact for Mr. Frakes, the film's director, to sign, telling him, "This really was the best movie. You really understood what Star Trek was about." Another director might've taken that as an opportunity to denigrate Stuart Baird, who capsized the TNG film franchise with his direction of Nemesis. Mr. Frakes simply added, "We had a great script to work with." Before then, I'd already respected him as an actor; I did not expect him to exhibit such humility and grace as to leave me also respecting him as a person.

The final highlight of the day was meeting Carroll Spinney, the man inside the Big Bird costume since 1969. (Mr. Spinney also brings to life Oscar the Grouch.) Like my three older brothers, I grew up on Sesame Street and was moved to meet someone who had been such a good friend to me; part of me regrets not taking the opportunity to give him a big hug. When I told him I still remembered the day everyone met Mr. Snuffleupagus, he replied, "That was a Thursday." What a gentle and amusing sense of humor!

I got far more out of my two hours at this year's Megafest than one would think. Whereas Adam West and Burt Ward charged $50 per signature in 2007, this year was more reasonable, almost disproportionately so: $30 for Dawn Wells, $25 for Jonathan Frakes, and $20 for Carroll Spinney. But though I went home with fewer autographs this year, I took with me more memories. Sure, Ray Park and Helen Slater have an undeniable "cool" factor, but their performances didn't have nearly the impact on my upbringing as Mr. Spinney's and Mr. Frakes'. This weekend, they gave me more than their autographs: they gave me the chance to say "Thank you."

If Only, If Only…

24-Oct-07 11:15 AM by
Filed under Star Trek; Comments Off on If Only, If Only…

Today, on the anniversary of Gene Roddenberry's passing, StarTrek.com has a thoughtful tribute to the legacy of Star Trek's creator:


… with Star Trek he created an iconic mythology which has succeeded in providing popular culture with a common reference point for all things futuristic and achievable. ("Achievable" being what distinguishes Star Trek from Star Wars.) Because Star Trek has become so firmly planted in our collective consciousness, far-reaching ideas can more easily bubble to the surface and gain acceptance, as the optimists among us push forward to realize that vision of the future. Replicators, tricorders, bio-beds, cloaking fields, transporters, and even warp drive are all concepts being pursued today by scientists and innovators, even when overwhelming conventional wisdom would dismiss them.

The article goes on to posit that humanity could realize its great potential if we would set our sights on the stars and not on petty terrestrial squabbles over land and oil. I suppose that's what makes Star Trek science fiction…

TNG at 20: T-Minus One Week and Counting

22-Sep-07 11:59 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; Comments Off on TNG at 20: T-Minus One Week and Counting

October 4th marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. A year after Russia beat America into space, the White House responded with a document, Introduction to Outer Space, urging America to win this race:

The first of these factors is the compelling urge of man to explore and to discover, the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before. Most of the surface of the earth has now been explored and men now turn on the exploration of outer space as their next objective.

"Where no one has gone before…" Gene Roddenberry took these words to heart, and less than a decade later, he went there — and brought the world with him.

His original Star Trek, which turned 40 last year, may not initially have been a commercial success; but its successor, true to its title, inspired the next generation of television viewers to look up. The passion the Star Trek franchise has stirred in its audience has proven timeless, and its impact on not just our popular culture, but on our scientific progress, is immeasurable. One space industry executive wrote, "We are in the commercial space flight industry and would like to testify that at least one out of two of all the actual entrepreneurs involved in this industry has been inspired by Star Trek."

Though Kirk, Spock, and McCoy marked the beginning, it was Picard, Riker, Data, and company that cemented the franchise in our hearts and souls. And we here at Showbits cannot fail to observe the beginning of that golden era.

September 28th marks twenty years since Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired. To commemorate this historic anniversary, we'll be blogging about Star Trek every day this week, culminating on Friday. We'll be providing news, retrospectives, analyses, and more. They'll be fun, nostalgic, thought-provoking, and who knows what else. So please join us on this wagon train to the stars… The sky's the limit!


Also in the TNG at 20 series:

Just an old country doctor…

20-Jan-07 11:58 AM by
Filed under Celebrities, Star Trek; 1 comment.

This week, I finally tackled Crucible: Provenance of Shadows, the first in a trilogy of books that independently examines each of the three main characters of Star Trek: The Original Series. At three times the length of most Trek novels, Crucible initially intimidated me — but with the Spock's book now out, and Kirk's due next month, it felt time to get cracking on McCoy's installment.

I'm enjoying the book thoroughly, and I'll go into more detail why once I've finished it. But I thought it worth writing today in memory of the actor who brought Bones to life, as today would've been his 87th birthday. It was a sad day eight years ago when DeForest Kelley was the first of the Enterprise's crew to pass beyond the galactic barrier, where he's since been joined by James Doohan. But as I read Crucible, it brings Mr. Kelley's performance back to life in a very real way. It's probably expected of today's Trek actors, but I doubt forty-one years ago, the crew of the Enterprise's maiden voyage realized they would be immortalized, with countless untold stories yet to be discovered and explored, in novels, comics, films, and fiction for decades to come. I can't imagine how different a scape our imaginations would be, had any other actor come to personify Leonard McCoy. I hope novels such as Crucible continue to do his legacy proud.

I regret that I'm not a bigger fan of westerns, as it seems that genre is where Mr. Kelley can most be seen outside the realm of Star Trek. Can anyone recommend some of his films?

Fortunately, he was more than an actor, as today I was delighted to discover a trilogy of Star Trek poems written by the late doctor. "The Big Bird's Dream" presents a rhyming narrative of Gene Roddenberry (whose nickname was "The Great Bird of the Galaxy") and his efforts to realize his screenplay dream. Be sure to follow the links to the two sequel poems as well.