The Man Behind Elmo

I’m cross-posting my Tumblr review of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey here because the film is about a man who began sewing puppets as a young boy in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s a truly inspiring tale story. The perfect film for the holidays. If you want a feel-good movie, this is it!

Elmo and Kevin Clash in BEING ELMO, a Submarine Deluxe release Photo courtesy of Scott McDermott

Elmo is the adorable red furry Muppet that kids love to hug. Remember the Tickle Me Elmo doll? Well, that infectious giggle and little kid voice comes from Kevin Clash, a tall black man from Baltimore. Yep, a black man is the voice of Elmo. And the Constance Marks’s documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey focuses on his fascinating story, which is now playing in Bay Area theaters and elsewhere.

As a kid growing up in Baltimore, Clash was glued to PBS’s Sesame Street and was mesmerized by the Muppets. He soon learned to keep an eye out for any TV specials by Jim Henson, the Muppets’ creator. Then one day he made his own puppet – out of his father’s trench coat. But he didn’t get in trouble for cutting up his father’s coat without permission. He was fortunate to have loving parents who recognized and nurtured his precocious talent and let him continue to sew puppets.

Kevin Clash (1975) from BEING ELMO, a Submarine Deluxe release Photo courtesy of Kevin Clash

Fortunately, there’s plenty of footage and documentation of Clash’s early interest in puppets. He sewed many puppets as a boy and held puppets shows for the neighborhood kids. And unlike most kids, he didn’t grow out of his boyhood obsession. Instead he stuck with it through high school even when he was became known as the boy who played with dolls. As a teenager, he was invited to audition as a puppeteer for a local TV children’s program – and the film shows his audition tape. By this time in his nascent career, Clash has sewed about 85 puppets. Later on a school field trip to New York, he had the chance to tour the Muppet studio and see where the puppets were built. Through luck, talent, and persistence, he eventually got the chance to work for his idol Jim Henson. And the rest is history.

Being Elmo traces Clash’s remarkable career trajectory, from meeting Muppet builder and his eventual mentor Kermit Love, to working for Sesame Street and then creating the voice and character of the beloved puppet known today as Elmo.

It’s not just a film for Muppet and Elmo fans but an inspiring story for kids and adults alike. After all, how many people ever get to make their childhood dreams come true?

 – Chuleenan Svetvilas

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