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