Kevin Clash and Elmo Return Home for “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey”
Heather Nadolny - On June 21, a packed house waited in anticipation for a SILVERDOCS premiere, and to see its subjects in person: Elmo, and his creator and longtime puppeteer, Kevin Clash.
In a full evening of events, Clash participated in a discussion at the Silver Spring Civic Center, followed by a red carpet premiere of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, produced and directed by Constance Marks, at the AFI Film Institute.
During all of it, the Baltimore native was surrounded by his family, or as he called them "his personal hecklers."
"You can tell who the family is. Before the story gets out, they’re laughing already," he joked, glaring at the front row.
Clash recounted the kind of home he grew up in, where everyone loved to laugh and pick on one another. He shared stories of a ripped up trench coat, performing under a clothesline in the backyard, and throwing his sister’s cosmetics out into the snow.
"I’m glad my mom and dad kept me," he quipped.
Clash also discussed the development of his puppeteering skills, which eventually brought him to Sesame Street.
"I had a lot of great mentors that really supported me."
Those mentors initially included TV personalities Stu Kerr and Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo. Clash became the regular puppeteer on Keeshan’s show, furthering his career in both television and making puppets.
His break came when he saw Kermit Love, who built Big Bird and Snufleupagus, on a TV special. Clash met Love during a school trip, and eventually started performing with the Muppets during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
After Captain Kangaroo was cancelled, Clash joined Jim Henson on the set of Labyrinth, and eventually, joined a new group of puppeteers on the set he’d been dreaming about: Sesame Street.
“Sesame Street has this life that is wonderful,” said Clash. “We call it a street within a street. It’s the people that make the place, and it’s a wonderful place to work.”
It was also, as the film tells, the birthplace of Elmo.
That famous name rippled through the crowds when Clash first brought the little monster out.
"Whenever I hear a child singing, I have to bring out Elmo," Clash joked. "He rests very comfortably, in a nice Coach bag--nothing but the best."
Elmo was initially a failure. Legendary puppeteer Richard Hunt had had enough of trying to create the young character, and literally threw him over to Clash. Clash based the little monster on the children in his mother’s daycare, and it stuck.
"Every character we perform is a part of us," said Clash. "I call it 'Peter Pan Syndrome.' We have so much fun doing what we’re doing. We’re all performers."
Before he knew it, Elmo had taken off, and was requested by children and families alike, all over the world. The film shows Clash on cruises, in Europe, in Japan, as well as doing numerous television appearances.
Even President Obama is Elmo’s friend. During Sesame Street’s recent White House visit, Clash took a picture with the President, and made Elmo eat his face.
"I was up all night thinking the Secret Service would whisk me away the next morning," Clash recounted. "As a puppeteer you know, if you didn’t have the puppet on hand, you’d be arrested."
In addition to the frenzy and famous friends, the film demonstrated Clash’s connection with children through Elmo. There were tearful scenes with Make-A-Wish recipients, as well as schoolchildren who were overjoyed to meet their beloved friend. After the film, he made sure every child present got to hug Elmo.
That, as Clash discussed, is why puppeteering stands apart. "You can’t have a CGI character come up and hug that child."
One particular scene that stood out to the audience, as reflected in the post-screening Q&A, featured 11 year-old Tau, a young puppeteer. The film shows Tau’s visit to Muppet Studios, where he was able to identify every single puppeteer in pictures, and he impressed Kevin Clash with his craft.
Tau was present at the premiere, and never took his puppet, Gregory, off his arm. According to Clash, one of the many joys of his job is seeing new puppeteers emerge.
"That’s how Jim [Henson] wanted it," he said. "He wanted it to be a rainbow of Muppets, a rainbow of monsters."
At the end of the film, Clash brought Elmo out, and danced across the bottom of the rolling credits. As tears filled his eyes, he looked out across the crowd, and his family, as his and his film’s journey continued in his home state.
"It really is the best playdate in the world."
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org