Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
The man behind Elmo: Documentary reveals puppeteer who made the Muppet a star
Behind every great puppet is a great puppeteer. In the case of Elmo, on “Sesame Street,’’ that puppeteer is Kevin Clash.
Elmo, as you probably know, has red fur, a helium-tinged voice, and a chirpy, chipper laugh that’s so endearing it’s probably a capital offense in North Korea. While it’s true that Clash would never be confused with Kim Jong-il, neither would he ever be mistaken for Elmo. He’s tall, 51, and African-American. How this highly improbable marriage came to be made in Muppet heaven is the burden of “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey.’’
The most interesting part of this lively, likable documentary is the journey. Born and raised in Baltimore, Clash had dreamed of working with the Muppets since he was 9 (Grover was his favorite). He built his own puppets and a stage in his backyard. He’d put on shows there for his mother’s daycare kids.
“My mother didn’t treat my Barbies the way she’d treat his puppets,’’ Clash’s sister Pam says with mock-annoyance. How supportive was Mrs. Clash? She tracked down the phone number of Kermit Love, the Muppets’ chief designer, to tell him about her son. Love said he could drop by his studio any time. It just so happened that Kevin was going on his senior-class trip to New York. That’s where Love was. They immediately hit it off, and later that year Love got Kevin a spot on a Muppets float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. At the post-parade party, he even got to meet Jim Henson. Kevin was 19. A bat boy rubbing elbows with Babe Ruth couldn’t have been happier (or more anxious).
Clash went back to Baltimore, where he’d started working on a local afternoon TV show while still in high school (that had put an end to jokes about his “playing with dolls’’). Soon enough, Clash joined the cast of “Captain Kangaroo,’’ followed by work as assistant puppeteer coordinator on Henson’s film “Labyrinth.’’ That led to his joining “Sesame Street’’ in 1984.
He took on a wide range of Muppet characters: Dr. Nobel Price, Hoots the Owl, Ferlinghetti Donizetti. But it was Elmo who became a sensation. Various other puppeteers had played him since the early ’70s. But it was Clash giving him that voice and seeing him in very specific terms - “I knew that Elmo should represent love,’’ he says, “just kissing and hugging’’ - that transformed the character from sideman (sideMuppet?) to superstar.
Superstardom can be a perilous thing, even for the man behind the curtain - or Muppet, as the case might be. Clash confesses to regrets over having spent so much time making Elmo appearances that he neglected his daughter, who’s now grown. The statement seems disingenuous, at best. No one exactly forced Clash to go on those promotional tours. But probing motivation or questioning behavior isn’t what “Being Elmo’’ is about, nor should it be. Presumably, that can wait for the North Korean version.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.