Kevin Clash did not play sports like the other kids in his poor neighborhood outside Baltimore, Md. Instead, he spent his days inside his family's apartment sewing puppets, inspired by the work of perhaps the greatest puppeteer in history, Jim Henson, to carefully create voices and movements for his characters. As director Constance Marks proves in her detailed and surprisingly emotional documentary “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey,” Clash's love of the art form eventually led him to create one of the most popular characters in children's television.
Clash was born in 1960 in a low-income section of Prince George's County, Maryland, and his earliest exposure to puppets came from watching Bunny Rabbit and Mister Moose on “Captain Kangaroo.” But in 1969, Clash watched the first episode of “Sesame Street” and was inspired to make his own puppets, creating a monkey by cutting up the woolen lining of his father's overcoat. Fortunately, his parents supported their son's unusual hobby, but those same warm feelings weren't always felt by his siblings or classmates who saw him as an oddball outsider.
But Clash quickly found his place. As a teenager, he began staging puppet shows at children's hospitals and was soon employed by Baltimore's WMAR-TV on a children's show called “Caboose.” Having become something of a local sensation, Clash came to the attention of Kermit Love, a puppeteer working with Jim Henson Productions, and soon secured a position on “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Great Space Coaster” before finally getting hired by Henson after several near-misses to work on “Sesame Street” and 1986's “Labyrinth.”
In 1985, Clash was given a hand-me-down Muppet, a red monster that had been around since 1972 and was finally named Elmo in 1981, but none of the experienced puppeteers on “Sesame Street” had successfully created a workable personality for the character. Clash picked up Elmo and instantly found his voice, an irrepressible 4-year-old with unconditional love for everyone around him. Elmo was a character that resonated with the show's core audience: Today, nearly one-third of each “Sesame Street” episode is dedicated to “Elmo's World.”
“Being Elmo,” which screens this weekend at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, benefits greatly from the singularity of Clash's story: As a teenager, he was spotlighted on the 1970s children's news show “Big Blue Marble,” so plenty of archival footage exists from the beginnings of Clash's meteoric career. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, the film portrays Clash as exhibiting the temperament of so many artists — he communicates most openly and honestly when working through his chosen art form.
Possibly the greatest revelation in “Being Elmo” is how Clash's experience is reflected by new generations. Late in the film, he is visited by a young puppeteer who can identify all the master puppeteers in a Muppets cast portrait and is now creating his own characters. He could be to Clash what Clash was to Henson: An heir apparent. “Being Elmo” illustrates that, no matter how technology alters artists' approach to creating fantasies, something magical happens when a character made of fleece, foam and plastic is given life by a talented artist.
— George Lang
“Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey”
Not rated 1:16 3½ stars
Starring: Kevin Clash.
Showing through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Go to www.okcmoa.com for showtimes.