ABC Eyewitness News
Meet Kevin Clash, the deep-voiced puppeteer who brings Elmo to life
Assoociated Press
Sept. 19, 2006

When young children see Elmo, they don't see the middle-aged man who is never more than an arm's length away. Of course, it's part of Sesame Street's design that TV viewers never see the puppeteers. But even when Elmo makes personal appearances on talk shows, charity events or book signings, kids look right past the 6-foot-tall man who literally is stuck to Elmo's side.

As far as they're concerned, he doesn't even exist.

Yet, without this man, Kevin Clash, there'd be no Elmo. It's Clash, a deep-voiced man who hails from suburban Maryland, who brings the floppy Muppet to life, high-pitched voice and all.

You might think Clash would be a bit envious of all the fame and all the fans his alter ego njoys, but that's not the way a 21-year Sesame Street puppeteer operates.

"You'd think being a performer, I'd want to be seen, but that's not my art," says Clash, 45.

And, he adds, for all that he gives Elmo, he gets as much back, especially knowing he puts a smile on the faces of millions of children around the world.

Clash has put the lessons he has learned from Elmo -- creativity, tolerance and optimism, among them -- into the new book My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love and Laughing Out Loud (Broadway Books).

At the top of the list is an appreciation for simple pleasures. "It's nice to know it's OK to stay in bed one day. I do . . . We should have nap time. Other countries have tea breaks and siestas. Can you imagine it here?!" he says with increasing enthusiasm as he realizes he's onto something.

This is when you do see the similarities between Elmo and Clash. They allow themselves to get excited about good ideas, good people, good things.

"Elmo taps into kids' imaginations," Clash says during a recent interview at his remarkably sophisticated office that overlooks Manhattan's Lincoln Center. "We don't have the control over how long kids have their imagination, but Elmo definitely sparks it. Even when kids know I'm performing, when they know Elmo is a puppet, it's still a special relationship because they're not bothered by it."

He adds, "Adults get so into it, too. Then they catch themselves. But they don't want to. Enjoying Elmo is a better experience than paying the bills."

Even Martha Stewart softens up when she's with her furry pal, Clash reports. "Martha turns into a kid. Everyone on the set (of Stewart's TV show) likes when we come on because they know she'll be in a good mood."

Clash has been playing with puppets for most of his life. If he found an empty box in the house, he'd turn it into playmate. One time, he cut the plush black synthetic fur piling out of his father's overcoat and turned it into a monkey. Although his dad wore his sternest look, Clash recalls, all he could say was, "What's his name?"

Clash says that's when he knew his parents understood his creative streak.

One might think as Clash grew up, his tastes would change, that he'd outgrow puppets, that he'd outgrow Sesame Street -- which at 10 he remembers first watching when on the family's RCA color TV -- or that he'd outgrow the children's humor, vocabulary and interests that are the key to Elmo's personality.

Clash explains his mother ran a day-care center out of their house so he grew up watching younger kids. "They're funny if you watch them," he says. "I picked up their sense of humor. We don't talk down to kids on Sesame Street. We relate to them. And from laughing, kids are learning."

Not that Clash didn't have a few missteps when he first joined the Sesame Workshop. Back when the late Jim Henson was running things, Clash was asked to create a character in the mold of Warner Wolf, a New York-area sports reporter who used the famous line, "Let's go to the videotape!"

Remember, though, Clash was from the Baltimore area and didn't know anything about that videotape. The character never clicked. Neither did an old professor or a juggler.

Then in 1985, Clash slid his hand into the Elmo puppet for the first time. It wasn't Elmo's debut (he'd been a bit player on Sesame Street for a few seasons), but his original puppeteer had left the show and the second was too busy with other duties to develop Elmo into a regular.

From the first day of their partnership, Elmo has had the laugh that even Clash acknowledges is on the brink of being just too much to bear. But it's also cute. It's that balance that makes the laugh a metaphor for the toddlers who make up Elmo's core fan base, Clash explains.

When the Tickle Me Elmo toys were created in 1996, 5 million plush dolls were sold, which proved kids, at least, didn't mind that laugh.

As for the critics, Clash tunes them out. "I don't take it personally. When someone makes fun of me or Elmo it's the minority. What we do clearly isn't meant for them."

He did take exception, however, when the public pounced on non-Sesame character Barney, who you'd think would be a rival of Elmo.

"I liked that Barney got mom and dad together singing a song with their kids. What's not to like about "I love you, you love me . . . ?' "

Spoken like a true Muppet.


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