Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, now showing at ACMI cinema in Melbourne, is a brilliant documentary about a man achieving his dream and making millions of others’ dreams come true too.
The documentary showcases the life of Kevin Clash, a man who aspired to work with Jim Henson as a puppeteer, and worked hard to make his dream a reality. Clash grew up in a black community in Baltimore – his parents couldn’t afford luxuries, but they gave him the world by encouraging him to pursue puppeteering. He watched shows such as Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street as a child, and made his own puppets based on the characters he saw on television. He was teased at school for ‘playing with dolls’, but also named the most likely to be a millionaire in his highschool yearbook.
His mentors were Jim Henson and puppet engineer Kermit Love, and he worked his way to puppeteering characters on Sesame Street and movies such as The Labyrinth and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Colleagues commend his incredible talent to become the characters he puppeteers – his voice synching, arm work and puppet expressions are so very relaxed.
Clash was encouraged to approach Jim Henson, expressing interest in working for him. He was told that Henson did not yet have a black cast member.
The archival footage was impressive – with footage of old time Sesame Street, Clash’s visit to New York in the late 1970s and footage of Jim Henson.
Clash has puppeteered a few characters on Sesame Street – Hoots the Owl, Clifford and Baby Sinclair, but is most famous for being Elmo, the loveable red furry monster. Colleagues say they can see a lot of Clash in Elmo. Clash says Elmo’s loving personality is his parents combined – Elmos’s creative and curious side comes from his Dad, and Elmo’s zest for life comes from his Mum.
Elmo started out as having a bit of a gruff voice, originally puppeteered by a number of people, lastly Richard Hunt, who didn’t gel with the puppet. He passed Elmo onto Cash, challenging him to see whether he could bring this character to life. And so he did – in an extraordinary way, giving Elmo a larger than life personality.
Elmo is arguably Sesame Street’s biggest character, and I believe has been used to teach children about global issues through appearances with Kofi Annan, Hilary Clinton and Michelle Obama, to name a few.
Kevin Clash now mentors international casts of Sesame Street, is an executive producer of the program, and teaches aspiring puppeteers. It was amazing to see his his journey take shape and his dreams come true.
There were a few really poignant things I learned in the documentary.
Puppets are alive. They have the ability to educate children in a way that adults can’t. Clash spoke of the research done by Sesame Street and he said that children were learning and influenced by Elmo the most.
Kevin Clash started his puppeterering career doing performances to children with disabilities in his local area. There was a scene at a special school where his puppet was talking to a little boy with a disability. Kevin, the puppet and the boy were all on the same level – the puppet performance was so inclusive, and made this boy feel very special, yet no different. Clash also spoke of the impact Elmo had on children – an impact he didn’t realise early on. Sick children have contacted Sesame Street HQ, asking if Sesame Street could make their wish come true. Often meeting Elmo is a child’s dying wish.
I also realised just how much Sesame Street embraces and promotes diversity. From the beginning, the street had a mixture of ethnicities, and Clash said he noticed this from when he watched the premiere in 1969. He felt like he belonged on that street – that the street was his community, and the characters spoke to him and welcomed him. Sesame Street is very diverse – with a range of puppets and also the humans on the street that come from different backgrounds and have a range of abilities.
Being Elmo is moving and clever. It is uplifting. There is truly so much to a puppet – the work that goes into creating them and making them come alive is incredible. Interestingly, with all the technology available, Elmo comes to life simply by a man using his creativity, hand and voice, and his desire to teach children and make the world a happier, more loving and accepting place.
More information at beingelmo.com.