“Being Elmo” Not Just
Another Muppet Movie
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Before heading “MPA – The Association of Magazine Media,” Nina Link was president of Children’s Television Workshop, the publishing arm of Sesame Street. I used to drop by to visit her, always hoping to catch a glimpse of Kermit or Miss Piggy. Never did.
One of my favorite Muppet characters was Elmo, that furry red monster who hosts “Elmo’s World,” the 15-minutes segment of TV’s Sesame Street devoted to toddlers.
Actually, Elmo is a guy named Kevin Clash. The Muppeteer (read: puppeteer) who manipulated that big red character.
A “Sesame Street” staff writer recalls Elmo’s origins: “There was this extra red puppet lying around and the cast would pick him up sometimes and try to create a personality, but nothing seemed to materialize.” Finally, in 1984, Clash took over the fuzzy plush toy and turned him into a three-and-a-half-year-old who speaks without pronouns. Elmo is now known as “baby monster.”
Under Kevin Clash’s tutelage, Elmo didn’t restrict himself to “Sesame Street.” He embarked on the talk-show circuit, appearing on “Martha Stewart Living,” “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” “The Tony Danza Show,” Emeril Live,” and The View,” to name a few.
Our baby monster has been known to dispense advice on babysitting, as well as appearing before congress to support music education. He’s the only non-human or puppet ever to testify before the U.S. Congress.
Elmo has even starred in to movies, “Elmo in Grouchland” and “Elmo Saves Christmas.”
However, this documentary playing at the Tropic Cinema – “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” – is more about Muppeteer Kevin Clash than his so-called “Little Red Menace.”
Directed by Constance Marks and narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, we learn about Clash’s modest childhood as a black kid in Baltimore, his creating a puppet show on a local TV station while still a teenager, his friendship with puppeteer Kermit Love (no, not the source of Kermit the Frog’s moniker), and the fateful meeting with his idol Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets concept. And now that Henson has gone to that great puppet stage in the sky, Clash takes on the creative lead, directing and producing “Sesame Street,” as well as training new generations of puppeteers around the world.
The interviews include Frank Oz, Rosie O'Donnell, Carroll Spinney, Joan Ganz Cooney, Marty Robinson, Fran Brill, and Bill Barretta.
There’s an irony to Clash’s fame. While millions of children tune in daily to watch Elmo, Kevin isn’t recognized when he walks down the street. And though he inspired many a child to learn the alphabet or count, his workaholic lifestyle took a toll on the relationship with his daughter (mostly glossed over with a Sweet 16 party to makeup for the oversight).
Yet, there’s no question that Kevin Clash is a kind, gentle, and well-meaning man who played a major (if unrecognized) role in our growing up in front of a television set.
“Being Elmo” tickles me. Elmo will tickle you too.