I am a huge, HUGE Jim Henson/Muppets freak. I grew up watching Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. I loved the Muppet movies. I always loved learning about the history of the Muppets, and about how Jim Henson did all the amazing things he did. Despite my intense and abiding love for all things Muppetish, I have a dark secret which I must confess to you:
I used to hate Elmo.
Remember when Elmo was everywhere? Back in the mid-nineties, that character could not be avoided. The “Tickle Me Elmo” doll caused frenzied stampedes in toy stores and resulted in actual injuries. That big, red head and that high-pitched laugh regularly appeared on pretty much every TV show you might tune in to, from talk shows to cooking programs. To top it all off, my little nephew was, at the time, obsessed with Elmo. Whenever I saw that kid, he was watching an Elmo video, or reading an Elmo book, or playing with his Elmo toys. It was all Elmo, all the time, and I got to a point where I could take no more of him.
Over the years, I’ve mellowed a lot. Partly because I don’t have little kids around me anymore, so my exposure to Elmo is a lot less frequent. Partly because the character has just grown on me an awful lot, mainly due to his more recent media appearances in which he hilariously acknowledges and sends up his own hyper-cuteness. And partly because I’ve come to learn more about Kevin Clash, the Muppeteer who performs Elmo, and I’ve realized how talented he is, and what a big role he has come to play in the entire Muppet/Sesame Street organization.
It is this story, the life and career of Kevin Clash, which is the focus of last year’s award-winning documentary, Being Elmo.
I watched this film tonight on PBS, as part of their Independent Lens series, and it was one of the most enjoyable programs I’ve seen in quite a while. I’d wanted to see it for months, and it did not disappoint me. If anything, it surprised me with how good it actually was. Clash’s story is a classic American tale, and it parallels the life of Jim Henson in several ways.
Both men started out by observing and enjoying the puppetry skills of others they’d watched on television (Henson was inspired by Edgar Bergen and the children’s puppet show Kukla, Fran & Ollie, while Clash was fascinated by by Henson’s own Muppets while watching Sesame Street as a kid). Both began creating their own puppets at home – both even used a parent’s coat as material for their earlier attempts at puppet-making. Both lived in Maryland when they started pursuing puppetry. Both put on shows for their neighbors and friends before moving into performing roles on local TV shows.
But the biggest similarity is the way that both men have created characters that have entertained and endeared themselves to people all over the world. Elmo is certainly as recognizable and popular in many places as is Henson’s best-loved Muppet, Kermit the Frog. This success is probably due to the way that Kevin Clash embodies the same qualities that made Jim Henson so great – a passion for puppetry and performing, a gentle and playful spirit, and a unique way of looking at the world, which gives their characters such unique personalities.
Being Elmo takes the viewer back to the childhood of Kevin Clash, when he dreamed of one day visiting Sesame Street and seeing real Muppets up close, while living in a modest home with his parents, his two sisters and his brother. And it is in this early life story that we see one of the main reasons for Clash’s success – the unconditional support and love of his mother and father. From the interviews with Clash’s parents, George and Gladys, it is clear that they always encouraged Kevin in his efforts to be a puppeteer. In fact, it is Gladys who secured a meeting for teenaged Kevin with one of Jim Henson’s longtime associates, Muppet designer Kermit Love, after contacting him by phone to tell him how much her son loved his work. While his own drive was a powerful force in getting him where he wanted to go, Kevin’s mother and father undoubtedly added a lot of momentum to his ambitions by simply believing in him and allowing him the freedom to explore his interests.
The film goes on to chart the beginning of Kevin Clash’s career in television, his introduction to (and later friendship with) Jim Henson, and his rise to the heights of fame as the voice and soul of Elmo. It also touches on the hard work he did and the personal sacrifices he made to maintain the popularity of the character during the height of “Elmo-Mania”. And it demonstrates the power of a little red ball of fur with plastic eyeballs, as there is scene after scene of children (including some who are terminally ill) reacting to the creature on the end of Clash’s arm with exuberant delight and disbelief, and an awfully big amount of love.
I may be biased as a Muppets fan, but I would highly recommend Being Elmo to anyone who wants to see a true and inspiring story of American creativity and perseverance. It is available for online viewing on iTunes and Netflix, and this week, it is also available on DVD. To find out how and where to see it, visit the official Being Elmo website. Elmo certainly has come a long way since he first made the scene on Sesame Street, and this film takes you along on that journey in a truly entertaining way.