Puppeteer who made Elmo famous started as a child by making a Mickey Mouse
By — Tracy Grant,
There are days when I think I have the best job. Like last week when I got to interview Elmo. Actually, I got to interview Kevin Clash, the 51-year-old Baltimore puppeteer who is the genius behind the lovable “Sesame Street” character. The story of how Clash went from being a 10-year-old making his own puppets to creating one of the most recognizable Muppets ever is told in a new movie, “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” now showing at the Landmark’s E Street Cinema in downtown Washington. After talking to Clash about his love of puppets, a typical workday and the importance of finding a job you love, I think that as great a job as being KidsPost editor is, being Elmo might be even better. (For the record, Clash sounds nothing like Elmo; he has a deep, rich voice. But he did make my day by saying, “Hello. I’m so happy to be talking with you” in the lovable red puppet’s voice.)
— Tracy Grant
How did you come to be a puppeteer?
“I started building puppets when I was 9 or 10 years old. I got into the mechanical aspect of it and would use clothes hangers and boxes to make puppets. I remember the first puppet I made was Mickey Mouse, because I got a big book that showed you how to draw the Disney characters with circles. So I built my own Mickey Mouse and then moved on to Hansel and Gretel.”
When did you start performing?
“I started doing puppet shows when I was 11 or 12. There was a recreation hall within walking distance of where we lived, and I would go and perform for anyone who was in the recreation hall. I would do it at church. I was shy, but I was comfortable performing because I wasn’t seen.”
How did your parents react to your love of puppets?
“They were so supportive. My father built the puppet stages, and he drove me around to performances. My mom helped me sew on the sewing machine. She taught me how to sew the costumes for my puppets.”
What advice would you have for kids who want to pursue a different type of career?
“Go for it. If it’s something that you are truly loving to do, then go for it. My parents wanted us to have jobs that we could enjoy. Sure, you have to make money, but it’s really important to get a job that you’re really going to enjoy.”
How did you wind up being Elmo?
“One of the puppeteers who was doing him didn’t enjoy doing him, so he gave the puppet to me. I came up with the voice, and everybody loved it. There wasn’t a lot of talking about it or brainstorming about it. I just did it, and it sounded right.”
What is a typical workday like?
“If I’m at the office, I’m doing meetings, or doing recordings. Maybe we’ll talk about the next home video or talk about the script for the next ‘Elmo’s World.’ Then I might go to a recording studio and do the audio for toys. I can only [talk as Elmo] for about three hours [before his voice gets sore].
So where’s the most unusual place you’ve ever been Elmo?
“In Congress. Elmo testified about wanting to get instruments back in schools. He had a little suit on. It was so cute, but it was a very serious thing. And Elmo talked about how much he would like to be able to learn an instrument when he went to school.”
Why is Elmo so beloved?
“Elmo mirrors that 31 / 2-year-old that watches ‘Sesame Street,’ and he mirrors that 31 / 2-year-old in all of us. Adults would love to live like Elmo, and kids love Elmo because they see themselves in him.”