'Sesame Street' puppeteer shares spotlight for documentary

By Gail Pennington

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Published: Sunday, Dec. 18 2011 4:00 p.m. MST

Puppeteer Kevin Clash brings Elmo to visit kids in a scene from the documentary feature "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey." The documentary will air in April on PBS.

Constance Marks Productions & Submarine Deluxe, Michael Weaver, NBC

ST. LOUIS — Kevin Clash began building puppets when he was 10 years old. Today, he's the senior puppet coordinator and puppet captain on "Sesame Street," where he's also the show's senior creative consultant.

His important job, though, is "Being Elmo."

That's the title of a fascinating documentary about Clash that's now opening in theaters and will air on PBS in April.

Instead of the mechanics of puppetry, "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey," which has already won a long list of prizes at film festivals across the country, wants to let viewers get to know Clash, and to show how he — and Elmo — affect the people around them.

After shooting more than 200 hours of raw footage, filmmakers Constance Marks and James Miller realized that the most interesting aspect of the story was Clash himself — "his life and how he was able to do what he's done, from a very young age," Marks told TV critics when PBS provided a sneak peek of the film this summer.

As a child, Clash commandeered his mother's sewing machine to make dozens of puppets, eventually performing at shows and on local TV in Baltimore. He began hanging around "Sesame Street" when he was 18, under the wing of famed Muppet designer Kermit Love. In 1984, he officially joined the "Sesame Street" team, taking on a variety of characters, including Hoots the Owl and Baby Natasha.

Elmo was just an extra piece of red fur after several puppeteers (including Carol "Big Bird" Spinney) failed to find a spark in him.

"I had gotten the character thrown to me by this unbelievable, talented performer called Richard Hunt," Clash recalls. "Richard was one of Jim (Henson's) main puppeteers. ... I was up and coming, a young puppeteer, and I said to myself, 'If he can't do anything with it, how can I come up with something?'"

He turned to his mother, who had been so patient with his puppet-making and who at the time was running a day care center.

"I went back home and hung out with my mom and watched kids," he says. "I came back up the next season, and there was this one sketch that was written for Elmo. It was just Elmo imagining that he was going on a trip, all in his imagination. I started doing some silly things, and once I heard the camera guys, who have seen everything, start laughing, I thought, 'OK, maybe I'm doing something that might work here.'"

With his now-familiar falsetto, Clash and the "Sesame Street" writers created the character of a 3½-year-old child with a loving heart, sweet innocence and silly sense of humor. The rest is Muppet history.

Clash doesn't look the way you might imagine the man behind Elmo would look. He is, as he describes himself, "a 50-year-old black man doing a falsetto voice." (He turned 51 in September.)

Even now that he's won or shared 17 Emmys and written a 2006 autobiography ("My Life as a Furry Red Monster"), he's recognized "once in a blue moon, which I'm cool with," he says.

"I like that," he says. "I have celebrity friends who are saying, 'Why didn't I become a puppeteer?' Whoopi (Goldberg) is one of them. I walk somewhere to have lunch with them, and everybody's running to them. I don't want any of that."

Elmo, of course, is recognized everywhere, not only from "Sesame Street" but from a wildly popular line of toys. When told "Elmo loves you," even an adult will melt.

But Clash's daughter Shannon, 18, wasn't always an easy sell. She didn't feel a rivalry with Elmo when she was small, her dad says. Instead, she used him to her advantage.

"There were sweet moments, and then there were moments where I knew she was just trying to get something from me," he says.

Once, he recalls, she called and said, "Hi, Daddy. Can I speak to Elmo?"

He put Elmo on, and the conversation went like this:

"Hi, Shannon."

"Hi, Elmo. Listen, there's this new Barbie doll that I saw. Can you tell dad about it? Now put dad back on."

"Hi, Shannon."

"Listen, Dad, Elmo has something really important to tell you."

Dist. by MCT Information Services

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