In 'Being Elmo,' Meet the Man Behind Sesame Street's Red Monster

A new documentary traces the history of Elmo and reveals the performer who animates one of the world's most famous puppets

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Constance Marks Productions, Inc.

At a school for disabled children in the Baltimore area, a 17 year-old Kevin Clash—the future voice of Elmo—was working a puppet resembling Rudy Davis from the Fat Albert cartoon. The puppet, who had neon pink hair and a blue newsboy cap, was trying to have a conversation with a handicapped boy named Stephen, whose protective helmet was also blue.

"I've seen you before," Stephen says, looking over the puppet's shoulder and pointing to Clash. "I'm talking to you, not him."

"You're talking to the person that's working me, huh?"

"Yeah," Stephen explains to the young puppeteer. "His voice is coming through you."

Clash, now 51 and the subject of Being Elmo—the documentary in which that scene appears, opening in New York today—is not used to getting noticed. He is simultaneously a celebrity and an unknown, remaining always in the shadow of the puppets he performs. "Sometimes I feel like a fly on the wall because they don't know me and they don't care to know me," he said in an interview. "I am just the guy with Elmo."

This makes the film—which won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year—a fascinating upending of puppeteering's natural order, in which the puppet eclipses the performer, and order that Clash seems to prefer. As he told me, "It's very nerve-wracking to act as myself."

Being Elmo is also, undeniably, a treat for anyone who has ever watched Sesame Street.

When the show premiered on November 10, 1969, there had been nothing quite like it on television. Clash was nine. At ten, he started building his own puppets and performing for kids around the neighborhood. When he was in high school, he got a gig on a local TV station. Soon after that he moved to New York, where he puppeteered on major network shows like Captain Kangaroo.

He was inspired throughout by Jim Henson—founder of Sesame Street, father of the Muppets, and inventor of "The Henson Stitch," whereby a puppet's seams are made invisible using antron fleece fabric. What caught Clash's eye, at least in the beginning, was how Henson thought in terms of television. Henson's vision wasn't really just about the puppets; it was about how those characters could connect with the masses—as Bert and Ernie did early on, looking directly into the camera and saying, "Well, hi! Boy, I sure am glad it's you." A child watching at home could, as Clash did, relate to these puppets not only as plush toys, but as vivid personalities.

Henson's puppets were entertainers with ambitions, beliefs, and senses of humor that were all their own. "Jim always wanted to create characters with a Muppet edge," Clash explained. This meant winning over the whole family, not just children. These were the kinds of characters who could celebrate the letters of the alphabet in the morning, and face off with late-night hosts in the evening. It takes time to fully realize the dimensions of a Muppet, Clash told me. "At the beginning you're still trying to figure it out. It's not until you start getting comfortable with the character that you can go out and ad lib." He says it took three or four years to entirely grasp Elmo.

The furry red monster had been featured as a minor character on Sesame Street before Clash took him over. In the early '80s, longtime Muppeteer Richard Hunt performed Elmo with a low-pitched gruffness that, heard on its own, might be imagined as the voice of a lifelong smoker. Elmo's language had a caveman-like syntactical simplicity: "Me find rhyme for boys…Rhyme for boys is noise!" (He then proceeded to bang cacophonously on a table). Hunt was fed up with Elmo and, as the story goes, tossed the puppet in Clash's lap and asked what he could get out of it. That was around the end of taping for the 1985 season, right before the crew's summer break. Clash went home to Baltimore to think about what Elmo's "edge" should be, keeping in mind that the show's audience was getting increasingly younger. He settled on a hook: As he says in the film, "I knew that Elmo should represent love. Just kissing and hugging." This proved a clever draw for small children, who not only felt Elmo's love, but also took delight in reciprocating it.

As the soundtrack swells in the background, fellow puppeteer Bill Barretta describes Elmo as "the pure innocence part of Kevin. That I think he always wants to be, but people would think he was a crazy person if he was always that way as an adult."

Clash is a pretty big guy with, these days, a shaved head. He says that children are never freaked out when they see him handling Elmo because their focus remains on the puppet. At times, though, kids can be shocked at the sight of Elmo in the fabric flesh. And, as much as Clash can shrink from view, he cannot completely disappear. As he asked Oprah while performing on her show, "You don't have a black man walking behind you like Elmo does, do you?" That line got laughs all around.

Puppeteering is situated oddly in the country's entertainment marketplace. The first American Puppetry Conference was held in Detroit in July 1936. When the group met again in Cincinnati the following year, attendees founded Puppeteers of America. In a keynote address to the organization given a few years ago, puppeteer Ronnie Burkett said, "We are such a bunch of weirdos …freaks and misfits." He went on, "It's high time we celebrated good—why even great—acting through and with a puppet, instead of all this hooey and voodoo about the power of the puppet on its own sans actor. Nonsense. It's a puppet. It's an instrument. It's just a thing. It needs a human to reflect humanity. I am so tired of hearing about the uber-marionette. It was a theory, and frankly, a stupid one."

The idea of the übermarionette comes from Edward Gordon Craig, a British theorist who famously argued that all actors should exit the stage and make way for marionette-like creatures that could perfectly project desired emotions and movements. A puppet, according to Craig, is a preferable material for the theater—lacking in human idiosyncrasies and easily manipulable by a director. Clash, for his part, explains to a colleague in the documentary, "We're trying to create reality, you know. We're trying to create a human."

Clash has gone to a few puppeteering conventions, but as a follower of Jim Henson who rapidly ascended into the upper echelons of mainstream puppet TV, his personal artistic struggles were felt most during his youth, when classmates mocked him for playing with dolls and accused him of bringing them into his bed at night. He isn't all that immersed in the puppetry scene—that is, outside Muppet world—but he says "it shouldn't be separate" from acting.

"It's inherently connected to acting. It's just that we do it through our hand instead of with our face like a regular actor," Clash told me. He added later that there are "certain ways that the character does take you over. Because you're not Kevin anymore."

Over the course of their relationship, Clash says Elmo has "definitely" been the dominant personality. As Being Elmo director Connie Marks put it, "Elmo is more animated, for sure." Elmo has hung out with Kofi Annan, Martha Stewart, and Michelle Obama. He teases Jimmy Fallon and flirts with Tyra Banks. He gets hugs from everybody. Clash, in the period of about 25 years that he has performed Elmo, has had a child, gotten divorced, become Sesame Street's Muppet Captain, and released an autobiography. "There were times when I was doing shows with children Shannon's age," Clash says of his daughter. "There I was, spending time and playing with them. I definitely felt I would rather be, you know, with Shannon, giving her that time."

He walks home from work without being recognized. There is a shot of him in the film across from the guy in the giant Elmo costume who waves to tourists in Times Square, casting Clash as just another stranger passing through.

A fellow Sesame Street puppeteer, Fran Brill, says in the film, "He is most comfortable in his skin when he is Elmo."

But if it seems he is hidden below the red puppet in the spotlight—the one who gets all the hugs—Henson's collaborator Frank Oz (Bert, Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster) has a saying to remedy the problem: "When a puppet is true and good and meaningful, it's the soul of the puppeteer that you're seeing." And if you cannot see Clash's soul that way, at least you can go see him in this documentary.