The importance of being Elmo
Kevin Clash is the man who brings Sesame Street’s Elmo to life, but no job is to small for the puppeteer, from sewing up seams, sweeping studio floors, or his tireless work for Elmo’s legion of fans
KEVIN CLASH might not be a household name, but, as Elmo’s puppeteer, his voice and work are part of popular culture. Indeed, when Clash’s alter-ego is described as “Brad Pitt for six-year-olds”, it feels like an understatement, not an exaggeration.
As well as prompting throngs of screaming fans, Elmo has to be the most hugged celebrity of his generation; and the children are oblivious to the tall human puppeteer standing beside him. Recently, he got recognition of an altogether more prestigious kind, when he won an Emmy for outstanding performance in a children’s series.
Constance Marks, the director of the poignant and winning documentary Being Elmo, says that Clash is endlessly generous to Elmo’s fans. “As we travelled and he would come to screenings, people would line up,” she says, “sometimes 400 to 500 people would be there, and he would wait to meet every last one – doing greetings over the phones, leaving voicemails, getting pictures taken . . . he does it all the time.”
In fact, a communication with a little fan was the catalyst for getting the documentary made. “The project came about because my husband [James Miller, Being Elmo’s cinematographer and producer] was a cameraman at Sesame Street,” says Marks. “One day he came home with a [videotaped] greeting for our daughter from Elmo, which was a few minutes long.
“I was floored – what an extraordinary thing to do. I said, ‘Tell me more about this man.’ The next time Kevin was on the set, I said to James, ‘Tell him I want to have lunch with him.’”
Being Elmo follows Clash from his humble Baltimore childhood to his rise in the world of TV puppetry, starting in local TV as a teenager (for which he made his own puppets), working on the long-running Captain Kangaroo, and eventually collaborating with his idols, Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
Watching Clash work, it’s easy to see how he ascended the ranks so quickly. With a flick of the wrist, he can give a jolt of life to a piece of cloth and creates an animated, funny and warm character.
Surprisingly, seeing the work behind these characters makes it feel more magical, not less. “These are performers like any others,” says Marks. “They’re acting at the end of their arm. That’s where it all comes out. It comes from their hearts, out of that limb.”
But was there ever a fear of breaking the fourth wall for Elmo fans? “No,” says Marks, confidently. “I followed the cue of the people at Sesame Street, and if they weren’t worried, neither was I. Kevin says of the fans, ‘They think of me as the person who’s carrying their friend.’ We haven’t had one complaint and we’ve been on the road with the film for a year and a half.”
Being Elmo feels as much Clash’s origin story as Elmo’s. So whose biopic is it? “It’s a dual biopic, but it’s Kevin’s story. Elmo happens to be one of the characters in Kevin’s story.”
In the documentary, Clash seems to be a shy man (not surprisingly) and a ferocious worker. Marks says that watching Kevin work “was very illuminating . . . His assistant once said to me, ‘When I first started working for Kevin I realised there was nothing too big or too small.’ She meant that he will roll up his sleeves and sew a ripped seam, sweep a floor and that nobody hears him delegate.”
Being Elmo shows the fame and success that Elmo brings to Clash, but also the huge responsibility. Clash seems to balance the endless Elmo work demands (TV recordings, coaching other puppeteers, public appearances) with frequent meet-and-greets for sick children.
“Once he was prepared to leave the set to visit a sick child,” says Marks. “It was too late to visit, so he ended up calling and having a long conversation with the child as Elmo. He is so hard-working. Being around someone like that, you learn what human potential is. It’s very affecting.”
Being Elmo – A Puppeteer’s Journey is available to download at volta.ie