Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Price of Being Elmo

What would you give in order to live your dream?  What would you sacrifice to become the best in your field?  Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey follows the story of Kevin Clash, an ordinary kid from Baltimore that moved to New York City right out of high school in order to pursue his dream of working with Jim Henson.  One day, a frustrated puppeteer on Sesame Street tossed a furry red monster puppet at Kevin, and said, "Here, he's not working for me.  See if you can get anything out of it."  And the Elmo we know and love today was born.

My wife an I recently had the chance to catch Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey on our local PBS station.  This is a documentary that everyone can love and appreciate.  It follows the story of Kevin Clash growing up as a kid who loved to watch, build, and perform with puppets.  Puppets weren't just a little hobby for Kevin, they were his passion.  Every spare minute of his day was spent making puppets, creating voices, and perfecting techniques.  He left Baltimore right out of high school, and went to New York City to work with some of the best puppeteers in the business.  One day, opportunity came knocking, and he got a chance to work with Jim Henson and his crew on Sesame Street.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Kevin was successful on Sesame Street and worked with his idol, Jim Henson, on several side projects as well.  One day in 1984, Richard Hunt, the puppeteer who was using the Elmo puppet at the time tossed him to Kevin and said, "See if you can get anything out of him."  Kevin began developing the current Elmo character and voice immediately, and it exploded in popularity.  

One of the things that amazed me about Kevin's story is just how many events that happened in his life would probably never happen today.  For example, he tells the story of how he took a field trip to New York City with his school.  He couldn't afford to travel there by himself, so this was the only way to visit.  He talked about going to meet with Kermit Love, creator of many of Jim Henson's Sesame Street puppets.  This would never happen today!  No school would let a boy leave the group to walk the streets of New York to meet a bearded man that made puppets.  "The risk is incalculable!" they would probably say, and a child's dream would be stifled.  

Another part of the story that really struck me was how devoted Kevin is to the Elmo character, performing thousands of events and touring with him all over the world.  It really cost him a  lot to bring all of that joy to our kids.  In the movie, he talks about how he wishes he could have that time back to spend with his own daughter, and as a dad, that part of the movie just kills me.  I know I did the same thing during my daughter's first year.  I chose work instead of family, and I regret it.  I now recognize how fortunate I am to be able to be an at-home dad. 

If you haven't seen this movie, I highly recommend it.  It's not often that there is a documentary that you can watch with your children and both be equally entertained.  This is a movie that every parent should see.  It will make you want to push your kids to chase their dreams, and make you appreciate the talent and dedication of people like Kevin Clash that bring your child hours of entertainment on wonderful shows like Sesame Street.  


  1. I'm going to have to check that out. My girls are infatuated with Elmo and my wife and I are always interested in the people who play the characters...especially since we grew up with Sesame Street as well.

    1. It's REALLY good. It's the #1 documentary on iTunes.

  2. My 16 year old nephew is so pumped!

  3. It's on Netflix Instant-Watch, and I finally got the chance to sit down and watch it last week. You're right, it's really excellent, and he's one of those rare exceptionally talented people who is a superstar even though most people have no idea who he is.

    There's definitely a lot of irony in how so much of his relationship with his daughter was sacrificed so that he could spend time loving, teaching and inspiring other kids instead.

    All I know is I came away with a massive desire to go buy a sewing machine and some fleece to start making puppets.

    1. I know, right?! I actually was a puppeteer at various churches growing up. It was fun at the time, but I'm at the age where I don't really want to spend multiple hours on my knees doing puppetry.



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