Day 84: Being Elmo

"The thing that people love about Elmo is, he needs them."

I'm a very lucky person. I was a child in the golden age of Jim Henson's Muppets. I was able to see Sesame Street in the morning, The Muppet Show at night, and I got to see The Muppets Take Manhattan, Follow That Bird & Labyrinth in the movie theater. I'll never forget when I heard about Jim Henson's death from my mother when she picked me up from school that day. Now, I never had any ambitions about becoming a Muppeteer, I was more taken with the jokes and the comedy behind the Muppets, but there are lots of kids who watch these shows and movies and have a desire to create and perform as Muppets.

One of those was a young boy from Baltimore named Kevin Clash, who was a nine year-old child when Sesame Street debuted, and it changed his life. He knew what he wanted to do when he grew up. Actually, he knew what he wanted to do right then and there, so he created a puppet using the lining of one of his father's overcoats. Clash was a very lucky kid because he had parents that encouraged him to follow his dreams and didn't get mad at him for destroying that coat, and I think that's so key to his success. He's undeniably talented and has a gift that very few people possess, but it's so clear that the love and support he got from his parents is what enabled him to live his dreams.

Clash was watching The Dick Cavett Show one night when Jim Henson was on with a man named Kermit Love who actually built a lot of the puppets Henson used. Clash was able to get in touch with Love who told him that he should stop by their studios anytime he's in New York and meet with him and take a tour. This begins an apprenticeship under Kermit that allows him to learn the tricks of the trade, and eventually leads to bigger and better things for the young puppeteer. He lands a job on Captain Kangaroo's show in New York, as well as a show created by Love called The Great Space Coaster, which I have definite memories of seeing when I was younger.

One thing leads to another, and Clash ends up working with his idol Jim Henson on Labyrinth, which he's able to parlay into a job on Sesame Street. One day, the young puppeteer is given a Muppet that famous Muppeteer Richard Hunt was unable to do anything interesting with, this furry little mongrel named Elmo that spoke like a caveman. Clash took the puppet home with him to Baltimore to figure out what to do with him, and when he returned to the Sesame Street Studios, he brought with him a brand new character that would go on to become a legend.

Now, if you're of my age range, you probably remember finding Elmo endlessly annoying when he started coming around regularly on Sesame Street. The thing is, we were too old to appreciate Elmo. Having children of my own, it's thoroughly undeniable that Elmo appeals to young children and connects with them in a way that virtually no other fictional character does. There's a real magic that happens when Elmo is on television, and children just go crazy over him. I love Elmo now. He has an infectious joy that just radiates off the screen and it's impossible not to be taken by someone who displays such unconditional love.

Kevin Clash is a genius. The way that he brings Elmo to life is amazing. In one scene, he's working with Muppeteers on the French version of Sesame Street, and when he is showing the woman how to operate the puppet in such a way that gives it life at all moments, it's just incredible. It's so subtle, it's a true art, and watching an artist like Clash work is awe inspiring. He's a master at what he does, and it's no wonder he's risen to be the guy that pretty much runs the show on Sesame Street now.

If there's one complaint I have about the film, it kind of glosses over the fact that he has sort of, not really neglected, that's not the right word, but he very clearly feels that he hasn't been there for his own daughter as she's been growing up because he's been out entertaining the world. It's clearly a regret of his, and he gets very emotional at his daughter's Sweet Sixteen party near the end of the film, but this isn't the kind of film that's interested in showing any sort of dark side to Clash. I think the film is more effective for not showing this darker side of him, as it makes it a great documentary to watch with your older children, but I wish they had explored his regret over this a bit more.

Unless you're a cynical person, I don't understand how you couldn't love Elmo, and if you love Elmo, this film is essential viewing. It's a great documentary that shows a man who followed his dreams and now helps others follow theirs. Watch this with your kids and show them how important it is to have dreams and to know that no matter how impossible they may seem, they are attainable.

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