‘Being Elmo,’ ‘The Muppets’ show puppets’ real touch

A curious thing happens when a child meets Kevin Clash. Although he’s 6 feet tall and speaks in a gravelly baritone, he all but disappears.

“I’m just somebody carrying around their friend,” said Clash, 51, who for the last 26 years has been an anonymous superstar as the voice and soul of “Sesame Street’s” Elmo. “If the child loves the character, they keep their imagination.”

Clash is the subject of “Being Elmo,” a documentary opening in Los Angeles on Friday that charts his journey from a bashful Baltimore adolescent sewing puppets out of slippers and coat linings to protégé of Muppets creator Jim Henson, and eventually “Sesame Street’s” premier puppeteer.


In a pop culture era dominated by computer-generated characters like “Toy Story’s” Woody and Buzz and the warring robots of “Transformers,” Henson’s tactile, low-tech art form is proving surprisingly enduring more than two decades after his death, as a generation reared on Kermit the Frog and Big Bird has grown up to make its own creative mark and is eager to bring the magic to today’s children.

Versions of “Sesame Street” are now seen by children in more than 140 countries, with about 5 million viewers a week in the U.S. Though domestically that places the show behind a super hit like Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer,” “Sesame Street” beats all the competition in cultural longevity — the program headed into its 42nd season in September, with a new X-Box Kinect game (the $49.99 “Once Upon a Monster”) and a lineup of celebrity guests including Nicole Kidman and Carmelo Anthony.

The Muppets, Henson’s most popular characters, are making their return to the big screen after 12 years away on Nov. 23. Written by avowed Henson fanboys Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller and directed by James Bobin, “The Muppets” introduces an orange-hued new puppet named Walter, who with his human brother Gary (Segel) and friend Mary (Amy Adams) helps reunite Henson’s far-flung felt-and-foam superstars Kermit and Miss Piggy and the gang to help save the Muppet theater from demolition.

“In this world of CGI I think we’ve lost perspective on that kids like to be able to touch something and know that it’s real,” Segel said. “An animated character can’t really be your friend, but you should see a kid come to set and talk to Kermit or talk to Walter.... You can never replace that with CGI or animation. There’s something about puppetry that’s timeless.”

It’s not only Henson’s characters and their direct descendants that are getting attention — more obscure and international puppet creations are too. Puppets on Film — a festival set to open at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Nov. 12, will include more than 50 puppet movies, such as the documentary “Rehearsal for a Sicilian Tragedy,” John Turturro’s family history about marionette theater, and “Kooky,” a Czech epic about an abandoned teddy bear traipsing through the Bohemian woods. The Broadway show “War Horse” won six Tony Awards this year in large part because of its lifelike equine puppets — the creation of the Handspring Puppet Company, a South African troupe. And the off-Broadway plays “Arias With a Twist” and “The Little Prince” have found appreciative audiences thanks to their inventive use of the medium.

“There’s a groundswell of puppetry happening in live theater and on film,” said Cheryl Henson, one of Jim Henson’s five children and president of the Jim Henson Foundation, an organization that has given more than 600 grants to puppet artists and theaters since its founding in 1982, including Handspring. “People who have a design background and who grew up with all the puppetry that we’ve had in our culture for the last 40 years, this is a part of them.... A lot of people have been inspired by my father’s work.”

The unseen hand

Clash first saw “Sesame Street” at age 10 and was riveted by the way the show’s puppeteers, including Henson and his frequent collaborator Frank Oz, created the illusion of life from piles of cloth. He began crafting puppets of his own and performing backyard shows for the children at the day care center that his mother ran out of their home.

“I was very, very shy, and so it was a good way of hiding,” Clash said. “I loved creating different characters, creating something that wasn’t me, to hide behind.”

By age 21, Clash was a regular performer on the syndicated children’s show “The Great Space Coaster,” and at 24, he joined “Sesame Street” as a puppeteer.

In 1985, Clash picked up a furry red critter known around the studio as “Baby Monster,” a character that had failed to catch on like audience favorites Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie. A more senior puppeteer voiced Baby Monster with a caveman grunt before tossing it to Clash in frustration; he gave the puppet a squeaky voice and a habit of smothering his casemates in hugs, and Elmo was born. The plucky little puppet took off, particularly with “Sesame Street’s” youngest viewers, soon spawning his own segment on the show, a must-have toy (Tickle Me Elmo) and a theatrically released movie (“The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland”).

“It’s not brain surgery,” Clash said of Elmo’s appeal. “It’s love, happy, hugs, kisses.”

“Being Elmo” director Constance Marks first noticed Clash nearly a decade ago, after her husband, then a “Sesame Street” cameraman, brought home a tape Clash had recorded for their 2-year-old daughter.

“The manipulation of the puppet was phenomenal,” Marks said. “There would be little nuances in the gestures. The way he’ll tilt the head, the way he’ll groom himself, fix his own hair. Kevin took this puppet to places I’ve never seen anyone go before.”

Puppeteering requires an elaborate skill set — the creativity to dream up a distinctive character, the dexterity to manipulate it in an expressive way and the charm to perform. Clash uses his falsetto for Elmo, often while bent uncomfortably to stay out of the camera shot, a habit a vocal coach once warned him against. “She said, ‘There’s no way you can do that voice physically doing what you’re doing,’” Clash recalls. “I said ‘Well, that’s my job.’”

“The puppeteers … they have to be amazing actors, they have to be able to sing, they have to be contortionists, they have to be funny, they have to be dramatic,” said Segel. “They’re more talented than I could ever hope to be.”

It also helps to be egoless, because most puppeteers go unseen. Clash said he’s rarely recognized, and in one telling scene in “Being Elmo” he walks unnoticed through Times Square as an actor in a giant Elmo costume waves to tourists. That anonymity may fade, however, after “Being Elmo,” which earned a special jury award at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is expanding to multiple cities this weekend after opening in New York to strong reviews.

Classic art, modern life

Puppeteering has flourished for centuries in locales as varied as Italy and India. But the art form enjoyed a particular flowering in 1970s and ‘80s America thanks to Henson, whose characters had a warmth and wit that appealed to all ages. “The Muppet Show,” introduced in 1976, was an outsized success, reaching some 235 million viewers a week in more than 100 countries. Henson soon branched into films with “The Muppet Movie” in 1979 (followed by sequels and the fantasy forays “The Dark Crystal” in 1982 and “Labyrinth” in 1986) and cable with HBO’s “Fraggle Rock” in 1983.

After Henson’s sudden death at age 53 in 1990, puppeteering continued to evolve in new, often more adult-oriented ways. Puppets have been central to two of the longest-running shows in Broadway history — Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Disney’s “The Lion King,” in which ornate puppets populate the jungle, and the musical “Avenue Q,” an outré Sesame Street parody. In 2004, the film “Team America: World Police,” from the creators of “South Park,” tested the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s ratings board with a raunchy puppet love scene.

Because they’re graphical, visually driven characters, puppets cross cultural borders well, for both children and adults.

The Walt Disney Co. is betting that the Muppets will connect with a new, generation of kids as readily as they did with their parents. It’s a gamble — one the new film winks at with several references to a hardened world that has no place for a banjo-playing frog. (The Muppets’ competition to get back on TV is a bleak reality program called “Punch Teacher.”)

There’s no question kids have changed since “Rainbow Connection” became a radio hit — the video game generation is accustomed to elaborate, physics-defying CG characters. But the Muppets have something more enduring going for them, according to the new film’s director, James Bobin.

“The Muppets is all about seeing the felt, or Fozzie’s fur, that is such nice detail, and it’s so rare to see it,” Bobin said. “These days it can be too much about computerized imagery; it works in lots of ways, but sometimes I feel it leaves you a bit cold, and the Muppets aren’t at all about that. They’re much more about a family. They should feel like they’re real and you can touch them. They’re very tactile. Whenever my daughter comes to set, she hugs Kermit, which is incredibly sweet.”

“The simplicity of them is what makes them successful,” Clash said. “They all have some type of addiction, some thing that they’re crazy about. The Count loved to count, Cookie Monster loves cookies, Telly Monster was obsessed with watching TV, Oscar loved trash.”

A chief virtue of the Muppets that hasn’t lasted forever, though, is Henson’s steady hand on his characters. The puppeteer was in talks with Disney over the rights to the Muppets when he died, and it took 14 years before his heirs and the studio agreed upon a deal. (The “Sesame Street” characters are owned by the nonprofit Sesame Workshop and remain under separate control from Disney. Kermit, who appeared on both “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show,” went to Disney in the split.)

The Muppet movies released in the years after Henson’s death lacked the cultural cachet of those he guided. “They’ve gone through, let’s say, a dry period where the movies they were putting out were not getting the home runs that the early Muppet movies did, and I think [the new movie] is showing that they’ve reexamined that,” said Bart Roccoberton, a professor of puppet arts at the University of Connecticut. “When they started doing ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Christmas Carol’ and things like that, I think they were trying to impose those characters into a world that they shouldn’t have, whereas the early Muppet movies are about the Muppets’ world.”

Not everyone is happy to see what Disney has made of Kermit and company in its new film. In September, Frank Oz, who for more than 30 years performed Miss Piggy, told the British newspaper Metro that he turned down a chance to work on the studio’s Muppets update. “I wasn’t happy with the script,” Oz said. “I don’t think they respected the characters. But I don’t want to go on about it like a sourpuss and hurt the movie.”

Cheryl Henson is more circumspect about watching her father’s characters in other creative hands, not just in the new movie — which his children are not involved with — but in other venues, like the homespun Muppet and “Sesame Street” spoofs that appear regularly on YouTube. “Emotionally, of course, we’ll always feel very close to these characters and want only the best for them,” she said. “We don’t want to see them doing anything they shouldn’t be doing. But we had to let that go. I’m more excited when I see puppet artists creating new work, their own characters, their own design. For me that is much more exciting than seeing somebody imitating my father’s work.”

For Clash, the demands of puppeting Elmo — as well as producing and directing at “Sesame Street,” and training new puppeteers — have sometimes kept him from another, more intimate source of love, his daughter, Shannon. “When she was little she’d get on the phone and say, ‘Daddy, can I speak to Elmo?’” Clash said. “When she got older she was concerned about me spending time with her and giving her time.” During Clash’s interview, conducted via Skype, the occasional beep of another of his contacts jumping online sounded. It was Shannon, now a freshman at the University of Maryland. “Now we’re having a great time,” Clash said. “We’re Skyping and hanging out.”

Times staff writers Gina McIntyre and Emily Rome contributed to this report.