Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011)

My kids and I watched this delightful documentary recently about Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who is best known for having developed the Sesame Street character, Elmo.  Because our family does not watch much TV, our kids have not even seen the television show very many times.  But even if you are not a regular viewer, who doesn’t love Elmo?

One sweet aspect of the documentary was the explanation of the essence of the Elmo character.  He is supposed to be a little kid who is the embodiment of love.  He is vulnerable and loves others.  And that vulnerability and love is very endearing to people.  He is wildly popular with children (and adults alike). 

One beautiful, but heart-breaking aspect of the film was where Mr. Clash explained that he had never really understood the impact the Elmo character had until Sesame Street began to get requests for visits by terminally ill children.  It had a profound impact on Mr. Clash when he was told that spending time with Elmo was the dying wish of many such children.  It was moving to see in the film the adoration of kids like that and the hugs they gave the puppet.  And the bittersweet looks of appreciation on the faces of their parents.  My hearts just broke for them that they were guiding their children through their last days on this earth.  But meeting Elmo seemed to bring peace to the families.

I thought the documentary’s exploration of the influence of Mr. Clash’s own family on the development of the Elmo character was also really interesting.  Some interviewees talked about how Elmo’s pure, loving heart was a reflection of Kevin Clash himself.  But one interviewee, who had known him since his early days as a teen puppeteer in Baltimore, disagreed and said that the reality was that Elmo was a reflection of Kevin’s parents.  They were so loving, supportive and enthusiastic; those qualities were expressed in the Elmo character.

Indeed, it was really sweet to hear Mr. Clash’s parents being interviewed.  They were just bubbling with pride in their son.  The Clash family lived in a poor neighborhood when Kevin was growing up.  Money was really tight.  Kids at school made fun of his interest in puppets.  At one point, his growing obsession with puppets inspired Kevin to cut up the lining of his dad’s winter coat to make a new puppet.  After he realized what he had done, he was fearful of what his dad would do.  But the elder Mr. Clash was so impressed by the puppet his son had created, he simply told Kevin to ask first next time before cutting up clothing.  (Baltimore winters are cold, what a reaction!)  Despite all this, Mr. and Mrs. Clash supported Kevin’s unusual passion. 

In the days before the internet and when long-distance was expensive, Mrs. Clash even tracked down the man who crafted Jim Henson’s Muppets.  That gentleman ended up becoming Kevin’s critical mentor who taught him a lot about puppeteering and even opened doors for him with Jim Henson.  Thank goodness for a supportive mom!

The last part of the film I wanted to mention was Kevin Clash’s own family.  Apparently, his marriage and his daughter’s birth coincided with the rise of Elmo as a cultural phenomenon.  Kevin Clash was traveling a lot and his marriage did not last.  He also missed a lot of his daughter’s childhood.  But he loves her so much.  At one very touching part of the film he compares the wonder of creating a puppet and the wonder of creating a human being.  He describes the joy it brings him to make puppets and create puppet characters.  But he describes with a sense of awe that his daughter is more amazing than any puppet.  With tears in his eyes, he describes his pride in and love for her.

Psalm 103:13

As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.

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