On Thursday, April 5, 2012, PBS will air Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey as part of their Independent Lens series. The Whoopi Goldberg-narrated program concerns a young African-American man by the name of Kevin Clash, and his dreams of becoming a puppeteer. The story of how he went from a nine-year old fan, to actually working on Sesame Street with his idol Jim Henson, is one of the most heartwarming I have seen in some time.
Kevin was seemingly born to the task. The Clash family hail from Baltimore, Maryland, and they were solidly blue-collar. The house Keith grew up in was not in the best part of town, but there was obviously a lot of love in the family. Keith loved television shows such as Captain Kangaroo and The Wonderful World of Disney. When Sesame Street debuted, he was immediately smitten with the Muppets. Keith was enthralled by puppetry, and began making his own at an early age. He even cut up his father’s trench-coat to use the fur lining to fashion his own Muppet.
Kevin expected the worst when his parents got home that night. He was not acting out or anything, he says that when he discovered the materials, something just came over him. Their response goes to the very heart of what makes this show so memorable. When they saw what he had created, Mr. and Mrs. Clash realized their boy had a very special talent. Rather than punishing him, they encouraged him in every possible way. This could not have been easy, for there were Kevin’s two sisters who needed to be taken care of as well, but somehow they managed.
While Kevin was still in high school, he auditioned for a position as a puppeteer on a local children’s show, and got it. When one of his high school classes took a field trip to New York, Keith was able to meet one of his early heroes, Kermit Love. Mr. Love was a Muppet designer, and Kevin was floored by what he found at the studio. The feeling was mutual, and he was taken under Kermit’s wing. When he graduated, he was offered a job there. As his mother says, “Kevin went directly from high school into his career, there was no middle ground.”
He was hired to work as a puppeteer on the Captain Kangaroo Show soon after this. Then came Kermit Love’s own series, the short-lived Great Space Coaster. When Jim Henson got to know him, he was offered the opportunity to work on The Dark Crystal film. The only catch was that he would have to quit his two series jobs, which forced him to do the unimaginable. He turned Jim Henson down.
Both of those series ended shortly afterwards however, and when Henson was casting for Labyrinth, Kevin Clash finally got the opportunity to work with his idol. Labyrinth led to a job with Sesame Street, where he remains to this day.
In A Puppeteer’s Journey, we understand why all of these people helped Kevin Clash so much. For one thing, his talent is undeniable. But the other element that comes through so clearly is just how good a man he has grown up to be. His personality comes through loud and clear, and it is little wonder why people would want to be there for him. On the one hand, he is a very warm and genuine person, and on the other, we find a bit of a scamp. It is a winning combination.
These qualities came together in a remarkable way shortly after he started at Sesame Street. The Elmo character was one that nobody at the Children’s Television Workshop had really “found.” Consequently, the Muppet was not used very much. At one point, Elmo was given to Kevin, to see what he could do with it.
Well, we all know how that turned out. When Kevin Clash took over Elmo, he became a Muppet superstar. In fact, Elmo became so popular that he was soon turned in to one of the biggest children’s toys ever, Tickle Me Elmo. One toy executive called the Tickle Me Elmo doll “The Beatles of toys.”
While we may not have known who the voice of Elmo was, we knew he had some very special qualities. On its face, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is the biography of the man behind one of the most popular Muppets of all time. But there is much more to this story. As we see Kevin Clash working with handicapped children, and the Make A Wish Foundation, we see him giving back, and paying it forward, as it were.
This is a film which reaffirms the basic good in people, and there are moments where I defy anyone not to shed a tear. Although it is unspoken, acting good and right seems to be the fundamental message here. By the end, things come full circle. A young girl is brought into the shop where the Muppets are made, and Kevin shows her around. Her questions are almost identical to the ones he was asking 30 years previously.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is very highly recommended, and an encore presentation of it will be shown on Monday April 9, 2012 for anyone who misses the April 5 Independent Lens premiere.