Like most human beings born before 1983, I had no understanding of the Muppet phenomenon known as Elmo until 2005, when my one-year-old helped me come to terms with the glory of this red monster. Most other kids characters – from Barney to Dora to the Teletubbies – have voices that make me want to rip my hair out and eat it. Elmo sounds like a high-pitched RuPaul with the message of Jesus (Elmo Loves You!). I defy anyone not to laugh at the Elmo’s World where Elmo explores dancing.
And it turns out the man at the heart of Elmo is as engaging as the muppet himself. As a youngun in 1970s Baltimore, Kevin Clash begged his parents to take him to the local Joann Fabrics on the weekend to buy fake fur for his hand-puppets. He kept an eye on his mom as she did housework so he could nab the paper towel dowels as soon as the last sheet was ripped from the tube. By high school, he starred as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls (enduring a white co-star who gave up her lead role rather than face kissing a black Sky) and produced local talent shows to raise money for muscular dystrophy. At sixteen, he performed Cookie Monster in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; by eighteen, he was working in New York City on Captain Kangaroo and freelancing for Jim Henson.
Kevin Clash wasn’t the first Elmo, but when he donned the red puppet in 1983 (and that signature giggle came spilling forth), he helped to usher in Sesame Street‘s new audience, which was years younger than the grade-school children for whom the show was originally created. Elmo’s World debuted in 1998 and was an instant success. Tickle Me Elmo was one of the craziest toy launches in history. In the fall of 2006, Kevin Clash came out with My Life As A Furry Red Monster, an as-told-to memoir (with Gary Brozek as ghost-writer) conveying the serendipitous and charming rise of the Elmo juggernaut.
Clash himself is intriguing – a skinny kid with a puppet obsession whose working class parents supported his passions, a high-school graduate who has never held a non-puppet job – but the book is E.T.-level tear-jerking when it comes to Elmo’s ability to bring joy – or at least bear witness – to those whose lives are rough. Like the elderly lady who lost everything in Katrina, including her Hokey Pokey Elmo, the one being she spoke to daily. (Don’t worry: Sesame Street’s V.P. of Global Affairs heard of her plight and sent her a new one.) Or the little girls who came to see Elmo during a post-Katrina tour but wouldn’t sit down to watch because, while the shelter provided them with skirts and sweatshirts, it didn’t give them any underwear.
In late April, I met Kevin Clash at the Sesame Workshop Offices across from Lincoln Center (the Sesame Street set is at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens). Clash, age forty-six, is trim and handsome. He breezed in, signaling for me to follow him into his office, which was appointed with toys featuring Elmo’s visage, from a balance bike to videos to a camping set that Clash kindly offered for me take home to my son. I snatched the toys up like a greedy two-year-old – Elmo means the world to me now. – Jennifer Baumgardner