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'Being Elmo': Heartwarming, inspiring story of an aspiring puppeteer's rise to fame

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, April 2 2012 2:59 p.m. MDT

A young Kevin Clash works performs in the backyard of his family home in 1975.

Courtesy of Kevin Clash

The Brad Pitt to 6-year-olds? Elmo.

So popular was Tickle Me Elmo’s introduction that mega-producer Aaron Spelling was making frantic phone calls to find two of the plush toys as gifts for his children.

The man behind Elmo? Puppeteer Kevin Clash.

As a 10-year-old, Clash made his first puppet from the acrylic fur lining inside his father’s overcoat — without his father’s permission.

“Next time, just ask me,” his father told him.

“We can buy other coats,” his mother responded.

With the support of his parents, Clash would go on to not only create the breakout character from “Sesame Street,” but he is now one of the leaders of the Sesame Street Workshop empire.

“Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” is the heartwarming, dream-come-true story of Clash’s single-minded dedication that began when he was a young puppeteering enthusiast in an impoverished area of Baltimore. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the documentary, airing at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 5, on KUED, profiles a mild-mannered man so lovable and beloved that Clash himself could be made of animated felt with googly eyes.

“Being Elmo” will not only entertain, it will educate and inspire young and old alike. And, well, you'd have to be a Grouch not to like it.

The two-hour program is at its most endearing when it focuses on Clash’s early years. He walks us through the backyard of his family’s former home to show the clothesline where he hung a blanket to perform puppet shows for children in his mother’s day care. Along with family photos, the show includes a variety of video clips of Clash stitching together puppets on his mother’s sewing machine, early performances before adoring schoolchildren and his first meeting with Kermit Love.

Love, who worked closely with “Sesame Street” and Muppets founder Jim Henson, became a mentor to Clash — after his mother made a phone call introducing her son.

Love invited Clash to his New York City workshop. And while on a school trip to the city, Clash was warmly welcomed by Love to his studio. Love gave the wide-eyed youngster guidance and encouragement.

Clash’s first professional work was for the CBS affiliate in Baltimore. Then Henson saw Clash’s talent and invited him to work on “Labyrinth” in 1968, which led to “Sesame Street.”

“Being Elmo” is narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, who relates her own story of fighting with another shopper while trying to buy a Tickle Me Elmo. Also included are interviews with Rosie O’Donnell and Clash’s associates to give a behind-the-scenes look at “Sesame Street” and the Jim Henson Workshop.

Along with Elmo, Clash’s characters include Hoots the Owl and Baby Natasha, and he produces and directs “Sesame Street” episodes and other projects, which have won him multiple Emmy Awards. “Being Elmo” includes many examples of Clash freely giving of his time, showing his deep love for children. The documentary follows the puppeteer’s 2006 autobiography, “My Life as a Furry Red Monster, What Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love and Laughing Out Loud.”

We can all learn much from Clash about life, love and laughing out loud.

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