Debra Spinney was married to actor Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who was best known for bringing the beloved Big Bird Character to life on Sesame Street. Spinney also portrayed Oscar the Grouch on the long-running children’s program until he retired from the show in 2018 after nearly 50 years.
Caroll Spinney passed away at his home in Woodstock, Connecticut on December 8, 2019. He was 85 years old.
Sesame Street brought the Spinneys together. Debra Jean Gilroy was also working for the Children’s Television Workshop, which is now know as the Sesame Workshop, when the couple first met in the early 1970s. They tied the knot in 1979.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Caroll Spinney & Debra Gilroy Met On the Set of Sesame Street
Debra Gilroy Spinney joked to the New York Times in a 2018 feature that when she first met Caroll Spinney, she “couldn’t believe Big Bird was coming up and talking to me.”
Gilroy was working for the non-profit organization that produced Sesame Street, the Children’s Television Workshop, in the community education department in the early 1970s.
She and Spinney began getting to know each other in 1972, the year after Spinney had gotten divorced from his first wife, Janice. His first wife was reportedly “embarrassed” by his career in puppetry. Caroll and Janice had three children, named Jessica, Melissa and Ben.
Spinney and Gilroy got married in 1979. They did not have children of their own.
2. Debra Gilroy Chose a Secretary Job at Sesame Street Over a Managerial Position at a Playtex Bra Factory When She was 21
Debra Jean Gilroy explained how she began working at Sesame Street during an interview alongside husband Caroll Spinney in 2016. That portion of the interview begins at about 11:00 in the video embedded above.
Gilroy said that when she was 21 years old, she was looking for a job and knew she wanted to be in Manhattan. She went to an employment agency and ended up having two job interviews in one day. One of the jobs was a managerial position at a Playtex bra factory.
The second position was for a secretary position at Sesame Street. The job, as Debra explained, paid less than the Playtex position. She added that when she visited the Sesame Street set, it was brutally cold and that she was freezing in her mini-skirt and “little-nothing coat.”
Debra said she had “tears running down” her cheeks and thought, “I’m going to die here coming to this job.” But despite that, Debra said she fell in love with Sesame Street anyway and accepted the job. In the interview above, Debra exclaimed, “Thank God I took that job” as she held her husband’s hand up to her face. Caroll responded, “Thank goodness. Amen to that!”
3. Debra Spinney Advised Would-Be Actors & Puppeteers to ‘Surround Yourself With What You’re Interested In’ To Increase the Odds Of Becoming Successful
Debra and Caroll Spinney sat down for an extensive interview at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Massachusetts, in February pf 2016. They were asked about advice they would give to actors and puppeteers hiping to make it in the entertainment business. Caroll advised the crowd that one of the keys is to never give up and not to get too discouraged by rejection.
Debra advised, “Surround yourself with what you’re interested in. You get the best people around you and you learn a lot.” She added that following that route could eventually lead to being “in the right place at the right time,” which is what happened for her husband.
Caroll Spinney was first noticed by Muppets creator Jim Henson during a puppet show in Salt Lake City, Utah. Debra noted that the show had been a “disaster” but that Henson was impressed by how Caroll had handled himself.
4. Caroll Spinney Described His Marriage to Debra Gilroy as the Happiest Years Of His Life
Caroll Spinney and Debra Gilroy were married for 40 years before his death on December 8, 2019. When they met in 1972, she was 21 years old and he was 39. As referenced above, they got married in 1979.
Spinney sweetly described his marriage in a 1998 interview. He said that the years with Debra had been the “happiest” of his entire life.
The couple owned a home in Woodstock, Connecticut that the New York Times described in 1998 as being “modeled after a house in a nicer Grimm Brothers fairy tale: a place where Goldilocks, after a little therapy, might learn about boundaries and coexist with the bears.” The newspaper reported that the home included a roller skating rink and a secret passageway from one of the children’s bedrooms.
Caroll Spinney explained to the Times that he and Debra got excited about decorating the house for Christmas each year. “We stay at home, watch the Dickens ‘Christmas Carol’ movies. I never get tired of Scrooge becoming nice.”
5. Debra Gilroy Spinney Is a Native of Queens, New York, & a Registered Democrat
Debra Jean Gilroy Spinney was born in January of 1951. According to her profile on IMDB.com, her hometown was Queens, New York, which is also where Sesame Street has been filmed since 1993. The program’s home is the Kaufman Astoria Studios in western Queens.
Debra Spinney has been a registered Democrat in Connecticut since 1975, according to voter records.