Elmo, a creature with the power to mesmerize millions of children, has a simple nature but sophisticated wit. Much of that charm comes from the master puppeteer behind the little monster, Kevin Clash.
The puppeteer, however, does not enjoy the spotlight as the man behind his wide range of Elmo's facial expressions for over 25 years: "Because he's not supposed to be seen," Clash said.
Clash's journey from working class Baltimore to stardom on an international stage as Elmo is chronicled in the documentary, "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey," which is now playing in select theaters. It has already won awards at film festivals, including the Sundance Special Jury Prize, with a story that delves into Clash's early obsession with puppets.
"I have Peter Pan syndrome we call it," Clash said.
The puppeteer explained that his mother taught him how to use a Singer sewing machine around the age of 9 or 10, and Clash ended up making 80 puppets. At first kids teased him, but the taunting eventually melted away as he became more famous.
"'You sleep with your puppets, you play with dolls,' you know," Clash said of being teased as a kid. "Then I did my first local television show and everybody thought 'that's cool' so that went away."
In many ways, Clash is a keeper of the flame that Muppet creator Jim Henson sparked on "Sesame Street." Henson was also was among the many puppet masters who took Clash under his wing. After moving to New York to work on "Captain Kangaroo" and PBS' "The Great Space Coaster," Clash joined "Sesame Street" in 1986 and maintains the Henson legacy to this day, both as a creative director at "Sesame Street" and as a mentor to the next generation of puppeteers.
At only 15 inches, Elmo stands tall in the pantheon of Henson's Muppet creations, and yet, the little red monster, who is forever 3 years old, was almost tossed aside. The original sketch of Elmo showed a "much wider" puppet, Clash said, with a gruff caveman persona. Richard Hunt, a Muppet performer who died at age 40 in 1992, used to voice early Elmo.
"Richard came up with the caveman, you know, the 'aargh' screaming," Clash said. "He didn't like the character [Elmo] and that's how I got it -- by default."
Elmo's falsetto voice is just one of the five voices Clash uses on the show: "I said, 'Hello, this is Elmo," and [Hunt] said OK fine."
Even though Clash may have saved Elmo, it was the character that made Clash a star. It seems now that "Sesame Street" would not be whole without both of them, but that wasn't always the case.
Before Elmo, "I thought, any day now, I was probably going to be let go," Clash said. "It was a challenge as far as starting."
Since Elmo was first introduced on the show in the 1980s, he has met a host of celebrities and influential figures, including Beyonce, Julia Roberts, Robert DeNiro, Oprah and Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations.
But there's a hint of shyness in Clash when he manipulates his puppet.
"It's not about us," he said. "It's about the characters we perform, and when you see us, see our faces, you see the characters."
It's Not So Easy Being Elmo
After spending a career entertaining the world's children, perhaps Clash's only regret was ignoring his own daughter, who, after his divorce, told her father she was feeling neglected.
"A child can do that in a second -- bring you right back down -- and she did and we're the better for it," Clash said.
Yet, the hours are still long. In addition to being Elmo, Clash is now a TV executive. When Clash is performing in front of a group of children, they seem to look past the 51-year-old man and just see Elmo, who greets nearly every child.
"They don't look at me, you know, most of the time they don't," Clash said.
Sonia Manzano, who has played the character Maria on "Sesame Street" for almost 40 years, said children seem to connect with Elmo's constant, upbeat attitude.
"He's absolutely positive, things cannot go wrong," she said. "Elmo can fix it and Elmo can make things go well."
Perhaps that's the reason why meeting Elmo is a popular request for the "Make-A-Wish" Foundation, according to the non-profit organization that works to grant wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions. Clash said that even when meeting with a dying child, he stays in character the whole time.
"You have to focus on the fact that this child is here for their friend and they are here to have a play date," he said. "To be a part of that and to be able to give back that way is always very humbling."