Meeting Elmo Inside Jim Henson Productions Workshop: ‘Like Pulling Back the Curtain on Oz’

Behind the Face of Elmo

I’m in the “Sesame Street” inner sanctum, and it’s like pulling back the curtain on Oz.

Drawers full of Muppet eyes, yards and yards of furry, fleecy fabric and fully formed Muppets frozen in thought are on the stands. It’s Jim Henson productions workshop in Queens, N.Y., and the make-believe that’s manufactured here immediately reaquaints you with your inner child.

My 3-year-old ran into the warehouse space and asked, “Why are they not talking?”

My eyes went wide as I struggled for an answer. It took me right back to when my 7-year-old asked me if there was really a tooth fairy.

“They’re resting …” offered in one of the puppet makers, clearly accustomed to the question.

“RIGHT!  They’re resting!” I said relieved.

“Oh, they’re resting.”  It made perfect sense to his 3-year-old brain, which is entirely comfortable with magical thinking. 

I found myself oohing and aahing over the colorful puppets and charmed by a 15-inch red monster named Elmo. But like so many extraordinary people I’ve met, master puppeteer Kevin Clash is an example of a person who took his obsession and turned it into his life’s work. Clash doesn’t just animate Elmo, there is a part of him that  is Elmo — that sweet-natured, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly part of Elmo.

The new documentary, “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” chronicles his humble beginnings in working-class Baltimore. He starting sewing puppets at a young age.  His parents love was so unconditional that they didn’t balk at a 9-year-old kid who spent all his time playing with puppets. Mom taught him how to use a sewing machine. Dad built shelves for his collection of 80 muppets.

He described being practically suction-cupped to the TV studying “Sesame Street.” By the time he was 18, he was a puppet prodigy. The documentary is the darling of the film festival circuit, winning prize after prize, even at Sundance.

Clash was candid with me about how hard it was to balance work and family as he was traveling the globe and heading up co-productions. The irony is not lost on a man who has dedicated his life to entertaining the world’s children, that his own, now-teenage daughter sent him an email asking him to essentially pay more attention to her

“Children can bring you right back,”  he said to me with a knowing look, “and we’re the better for it”.

People around Clash told me he will stay for hours at public events to make sure that every child who came to visit Elmo gets a chance to meet and greet him. There was a kid with autism at the event we attended with ABC News cameras. Elmo connected to him in a way that even the child psychologist marveled at.  Elmo has that special magic all right, and it has less to do with the fleece and the feathers on the outside, as it does with the heart the little Muppet is infused with on the inside.

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