For most children, childhood was a time where anything was possible and magic was real. Like many children, I loved to watch Sesame Street and the Muppets. The characters seemed so alive that my mind looked past the strings and my father’s insistence that they were simply puppets. To me they were real. The performers who create these characters are rarely talked about, which is why Constance Marks’ 2011 documentary, Being Elmo:A Puppeteer’s Journey, is such a treat. The film focuses on Kevin Clash’s career, and his creation of one of Sesame Street’s top Muppets, Elmo. This light hearted, and family friendly documentary focuses on Clash and his rise as a talented puppeteer who went on to create one of the most beloved Muppets of all time.
A disclaimer: Kevin Clash has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons, and has been accused of engaging in sexually abusive relationships with five men. Although the first man dropped his lawsuit, four others have since stepped forward. The men suing him claimed that they were 16 at the time their relationship began (the age of consent in New York is 17). Clash maintains his innocence, stating that he only ever engaged in activities with consenting adults. While the legal battles rage on I decided to find out more about Clash and his life. Although watching the film feels a bit strange with the allegations against Clash in mind, nothing can prevent this film from making you smile. Marks has succeeded in creating a fascinating character study about a shy man who threw all he had into his passions and abilities.
Clash was born and raised in Baltimore. He grew up on a steady diet of cartoons and Captain Kangaroo, and was obsessed with the fantasy world of Disney. He begged his parents to take him to Disneyworld, though it was never something the working class family could afford. As he grew older, Clash developed a fascination with puppetry, making his own puppets and putting on puppet shows for the neighbourhood kids. Although he was a shy boy, Clash came to life behind the puppets, playing with different voices and constantly experimenting with movement and expression.
Clash’s career appears to have happened in the right place at the right time. Puppets were big: Jim Henson, Clash’s idol, was in his prime, rolling on the success of Sesame Street and The Muppets. He knew that if he ever wanted to get into the big, he would have to up his game, so Clash mustered up the courage to contact Kermit Love, the creator of many of Muppets, such as Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus. Love agreed to meet Clash, and began to mentor him. Soon after, Clash’s career took off. He got a job on Captain Kangaroo and The Great Space Coaster. Over time, these jobs vanished, but Clash was able to keep going by accepting a job as one of the many puppeteers in Jim Henson’s,Labyrinth. He eventually landed a job on Sesame Street, voicing a few characters that never took off, before creating the lovable red monster we all know.
The film is incredibly touching, and rightfully focuses on Clash’s ability to make children smile. When he was beginning as a puppeteer he would visit special needs children. Being Elmo includes footage from these performances and we get to witness the joy on their faces as they watch Clash perform. Meeting Elmo also happens to be one of the top wishes in the Make a Wish Foundation. In one tear jerking scene we see a young girl on the set of Sesame Street have an oh-so-brief moment with Elmo. The scene is heartbreaking and really speaks of how well loved the character is, and the positive effect he has had on so many people’s lives.
Elmo was never my favourite Sesame Street character, but watching this brings back a flood of childhood memories. Although this documentary pulls back the curtain, and reveals the man behind the puppet, the magic is still there. Clash is soft-spoken and shy, a vast departure from the exuberant characters that he creates. We learn about his life though an entertaining and revealing mix of current day interviews with Clash and his colleagues, as well as family photos, and clips of old television shows, and films. Being Elmo is also chock-full of fascinating archival footage. Several mentor sessions with Kermit Love are aired, and we are privy to his enormous puppet workshop, where Clash learned how to improve his craft. The wealth of such footage alone makes this film a must watch for any Muppet fanatic.