The real world seldom creeps into Sesame Street, a place seemingly cocooned in magical monsters and effortless learning.
But that is no longer the case.
On Monday, news spread that Kevin Clash, a puppeteer who provides the voice of Elmo, is on leave from Sesame Street. Clash has denied that he had an inappropriate relationship for several years with 16-year-old boy who is now 23.
Sesame Street Workshop issued a statement saying it found the allegation against Clash “unsubstantiated” after meeting with the man twice. Clash, 52, who says the allegations are “false” and “defamatory” has been granted him leave to take “actions to protect his reputation.”
“Although this was a personal relationship unrelated to the workplace, our investigation did reveal that Kevin exercised poor judgment and violated company policy regarding internet usage and he was disciplined,” the Sesame Street Workshop statement said.
True or untrue, Sesame Street is simply not a place where such torrid things happen.
Last Saturday marked the 43rd anniversary of Sesame’s Street premiere on PBS stations. The creative show became so popular over the decades because of its creative way of mixing puppets – or Muppets as they are called on Sesame Street – with smart pre-school learning that used laboratory and formative research.
Most of us in Generation X grew up on the Count teaching us the 1,2,3s, Oscar the Grouch showing us how uncool it was to be cantankerous and Kermit the Frog keeping harmony. The show integrated Muppets with human characters like Bob and Mr. Hooper who became fixtures in daily lives. Kids often joined the mix, mingling with the Muppets. Who hasn’t wanted to visit, if not live, on Sesame Street at some point in their lives? It was the perfect universe.
Elmo, with his cherished blue blanket in hand, entered the picture in 1981 as a magnet for toddlers. His appearance was a few years too late for Gen X but perfect timing for Millennial generation. But many Gen X parents bought their Clinton-era babies Elmo onesies, stuffed animals and an array of toys with the red creature plastered on them. Elmo, with his high-pitched voice, symbolizes the innocence of childhood – that period of time when everything in the world is new and unknown.
But like other Muppets such as Big Bird who got a name-check during the presidential debates, Elmo has a political side.
In 2002, Elmo became the only non-human or puppet to testify before Congress. Former Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham of California, who went down in scandal in 2005 after pleading guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes and under-reporting his income, asked Elmo to testify before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. Elmo urged support for increased funding in music education.
Elmo’s human voice, Clash, is equally as popular as the character he brings to life.
Clash is Sesame Street’s Muppet Captain and co-executive producer. In 2006, he wrote an autobiography, “My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love and Laughing Out Loud.” He was the subject of a 2011 documentary about Elmo. He also voices other characters, including musician Clifford, a lilac-hued creature with dreadlocks, on various Muppet specials.
The Sesame Street Workshop said in its statement on Monday, “Elmo is bigger than any one person and will continue to be an integral part of Sesame Street to engage, educate and inspire children around the world, as it has for 40 years.”
That’s perhaps true, but scandal and allegations always contaminate whether in Washington, as we’re seeing with General David Petraeus, or on “Sesame Street.” Once the magic is tainted, it’s simply hard to recapture it.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker