This is my entry for “B” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “B” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Babies, Ballerina, Barbosa: The Man Who Made Brazil Cry, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, and Boredom.
Title: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Release Date: October 21, 2011
Director: Constance Marks
Production Company: Constance Marks Productions
I grew up in the first generation of Sesame Street viewers. During my years as a teenager and young adult, I noticed that my childhood show seemed to have been taken over by a tiny, red monster with a high-pitched voice. Many of the earlier generation held Elmo in scorn, and saw it as a commercial shift in Sesame Street. But the more I learned about Sesame Street, the more I came to realize that Elmo was actually the perfect character to reach kids watching Sesame Street who were actually younger than the show was intended for in the 60s and 70s. I also learned that Elmo didn’t emerge from the merchandise department, but had been created organically by a young puppeteer who brought to life a Muppet that older puppeteers had given up on. Being Elmo is the story of that puppeteer, Kevin Clash.
Clash grew up in a working class family in Baltimore and like many of our generation, enjoyed watching Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street. He grew fascinated with puppetry, learning how to build his own at the age of 10, and entertaining children at his mother’s day care. On a high school trip to New York City, Clash was able to meet up with puppet builder Kevin Love, who became a mentor to him. As a teenager, Clash performed on local television programs in Baltimore, and then was able to work on Captain Kangaroo and The Great Space Coaster. Working on two shows meant that Clash had to turn down Jim Henson when offered a job on The Dark Crystal. But after the two shows were canceled, Clash was available for Henson’s next offer to work on Labyrinth, and then Sesame Street.
Clash’s rise to success seems to have happened very quickly, as he went from one of the first puppeteer’s on Sesame Street to have grown up watching the show, to operating one of the most successful characters. Clash seems to be perplexed by the Tickle Me, Elmo mania of 1996, but dedicated to making connections with children through Elmo. He eventually rises to a senior position on the Sesame Street Muppets’ staff. The film shows that Clash’s dedication to work meant that he was distant in his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, Shannon. Later scenes show him attempting to reconnect with his daughter. He also is shown mentoring a young African-American puppeteer, much in the same that he was mentored by Kermit Love.
What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:
Being Elmo is presented as an inspirational story (and it is) of a child falling in love with puppetry and pursuing it to a level of success beyond imagination. But the elephant in the room here is that a year after this movie, Clash resigned from Sesame Street after allegations were made that Clash had sexual relations with teenage boys when they were younger than the age of consent. The charges were eventually dismissed but we have to assume that Clash likely committed offenses that put his life and character in a different light than what we is presented in this film. The old dilemma of art and the artist rears its head again, as it is simultaneously true that Clash created in Elmo a character that entertained, taught, and inspired millions of people, but also that Clash will never work on Sesame Street again (and he shouldn’t).
If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:
Watch I Am Big Bird, a documentary about Carol Spinney, the puppeteer who brought Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life for decades.
For a more in-depth history of Sesame Street, read Street Gang by Michael Davis.
2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II
If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:
- 2016: A journey through my neighborhood of Jamaica Plain in Boston.
- 2017: A spontaneous photograph each day.
- 2018: Watched and reviewed documentary movies.
And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:
- Book Reviews
- Movie Reviews
- Beer Reviews
- Music Reviews and Writing
- City Stories, expository writing about my experiences in various cities
And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.