“Being Elmo”

The film Being Elmo is currently playing at the Harkins Valley Art Theatre in Tempe

Kevin Clash began building puppets at the tender age of ten, and was often teased by classmates for “playing with dolls.” His sister, who enjoyed playing with Barbie dolls, couldn’t understand why their mother gave the puppets more attention. One day she threw Kevin’s puppets out of the window onto the snowy street below. Soon her cosmetics met a similar fate. Seems even the man who operates Elmo, one of the sweetest characters on Sesame Street, knows a thing or two about sibling rivalry.

Clash’s mom reveals, in the film titled “Being Elmo,” that she was never bothered by her son’s fascination with puppets. She knew that building puppets and bringing them to life was his gift and his passion. Once Clash landed a local television gig, kids at his Baltimore school decided he was cool — but that was never his goal. Clash merely wanted to do what he loved, and use his puppets to make others happy.

His earliest audience consisted of kids from the day care center his mom ran in their home. Soon Clash was performing at hospitals and other community settings, where he noticed the special affinity of kids with special needs for his playful puppet characters. Several “Being Elmo” scenes show Clash, and Elmo, interacting with children from the Make-a-Wish Foundation and other children’s charities.

Being Elmo features the journey of puppeteer Kevin Clash

Clash was thrown, quite literally, into the world of Elmo after another puppeteer couldn’t decide what to make of the furry red creature. Elmo’s original voice, much deeper than the voice Clash developed for Elmo, wasn’t resonating. Clash followed the advice of a mentor who’d once told him that every character needs a hook — one unique, defining characteristic.

As Clash watched the children around him, he noticed something they all seemed to need and appreciate — a hug. So Elmo — with his high, exuberant voice — became the Muppet who loved to kiss and hug. Elmo, like Clash, is all about making others happy. Toys like Tickle Me Elmo don’t gel with Clash, who says Elmo would never use the word “me.”

Folks who see “Being Elmo,” a documentary about Clash’s puppeteering journey, hear tales of his first trip to New York City and his first glimpse at the famous porch steps on Sesame Street. Also home movies from the day his daughter’s mother, once his wife, went into labor. Seems she didn’t take kindly to Elmo’s narration of the event.  

Several scenes show Clash working in the Jim Henson workshop, pulling out wide drawers filled with assorted plastic eyeballs and brightly colored facial hair. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Clash is well into the journey before realizing that he’s spent much of his daughter’s childhood entertaining other people’s children.

The film captures his attempts to right the wrong with a very special sweet 16 party. And other bittersweet moments too — including a gathering of puppeteers, and puppets, at the memorial held after Jim Henson’s death. As the film draws to a close, we see Clash opening the beloved eyeball drawer as he delights in the excitement beaming through a young puppet builder’s eyes. That’s the nature of “Being Elmo.”

— Lynn

Note: “Being Elmo” is currently playing, along with another documentary titled “We Were Here,” at the Harkins Valley Art Theatre in Tempe’s Mill Avenue District. Click here for details and showtimes.

Coming up: Black Friday — Main Street style

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