The Dallas International Film Festival begins its 11-day run Thursday night with the documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. In the film, we learn how a Baltimore puppeteer created one of the most beloved children’s characters in television history. And as it turns out, the man and the Muppett have a lot in common.
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At first glance, Kevin Clash and Elmo couldn’t be more different.
Kevin’s very tall and Elmo’s pretty short. Kevin is black and Elmo is red. And Kevin has a man’s voice, while Elmo talks like a 3-year-old.
But they have one thing in common that has kept them together for more than 25 years – an unmatched love for children. Just ask Elmo.
ELMO: “They’re Elmo’s friend. And they make Elmo happy.”
CLASH: “They’re the funniest people on earth. I mean they’re just so funny. … They’re the best comedians in the world. It’s so funny – there’s no punch line! It’s just the way they act and their innocence and things that they say and how they act, it’s just funny. I try and pull upon that with Elmo – pulling some of that personality from them and putting it into Elmo.”
Being Elmo follows Clash’s lifelong love of puppets, which began when he performed shows for the kids in his neighborhood. He made his early puppets out of materials he had around the house, including one fashioned out of one of his dad’s coats. His mom taught him to sew his creations using a Singer sewing machine. And while still in high school, he landed a puppeteering job on a children’s television show in Baltimore called Caboose.
But the big time wouldn’t wait long. In his early 20s, Clash was working in New York with Bob Keeshan on Captain Kangaroo and later with the puppetmaster himself, Jim Henson, on Sesame Street.
Some of Clash’s first characters on Sesame Street included Hoots the Owl and Dr. Noble Price – Muppets only die hard fans remember. But in 1984, luck literally landed in his lap. A fellow puppeteer named Richard Hunt tossed Clash a red monster puppet that had been around a while and asked him if he though he could get anything out of it.
CLASH: “It was pretty easy – the character was already around and was already written, so we pretty much knew what the character was supposed to be on Sesame, which was really a young child, a young child’s point of view. So that’s where he came from, and it was really just a matter of what voice I would come up with and were they OK with it.”
That familiar soft, high-pitched voice has become as recognizable as Elmo’s red fur. But Clash says Henson taught him that the voice is really just a tool. Which makes sense – Henson voiced both Ernie and Kermit the Frog, two characters that really just sound like Jim Henson.
CLASH: “Jim taught us that the personality is important to the character and the voice is secondary. If you have the character and the personality, the voice will fall into place. Because then that meant you know the character. You’ve connected to something.”
There’s no denying kids connect with Elmo. The documentary captures what happens when he enters a classroom.
But kids aren’t the only ones with Elmo fever. Elmo attended a screening of Being Elmo at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin earlier this month. And after the movie adults raced the kids to have a picture taken with him. Some even asked to tickle Elmo.
Constance Marks directed Being Elmo.
MARKS: “The key element is something very genuine about love that comes through this character without ever being saccharine or without talking down to anybody. There’s just something pure about that that people instinctively want and understand that this character represents.”
Elmo may love everybody. But occasionally he’ll take a jab at his closest friend. Ask him what the best part about working with Kevin is, and he responds:
CLASH: “He totally just dismisses me. And I can’t dismiss him.” [laughs]
Being Elmo screens Thursday night 7 at the Winspear Opera House and Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas. Catch Elmo on Sesame Street weekdays at 11 a.m. on KERA.