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Sundance 2011: Elmo talks about his butt [Video]

January 24, 2011 |  8:00 am

Of all the fur-swathed celebrities at the Sundance Film Festival this year, none holds a candle to Elmo, the lovable red denizen of "Sesame Street." The squeaky-voiced muppet moved fans to tears Sunday at the world premiere of "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey," an uplifting documentary about how a poor black kid from the suburbs of Baltimore grew up to be the man who brought to life one of the most beloved children's characters in America.

Kevin Clash came of age in the 1960s loving "The Wonderful World of Disney" and "Captain Kangaroo." But it was the debut of "Sesame Street" in 1969 that changed his life. "I was glued," he says in the film, because the TV show featured blacks and Latinos as well as whites. "It was more like my neighborhood."

His favorite character was Grover. "I thought, who is doing this?" Clash said. "Who is creating this?"

According to the film, directed by Constance Marks, Clash began watching TV specials on Jim Henson. One day, he spied his dad's trenchcoat in the closet and noticed it had a black fur lining. Almost in a trance, he grabbed the coat and cut it apart to sew his first puppet, a monkey. He set it on the dresser in his parents' bedroom, initially proud of his effort and then later petrified of his father's reaction.

He needn't have been.

"I was so thrilled," his mother recalls in the movie. "I thought, forget about the coat, Kevin's gonna make money. He can buy a new coat." His father helped him build a stage in the backyard, where he performed puppet shows for kids whom his mother babysat. He later staged shows around Baltimore at schools.

In high school, Clash endured the teasing of classmates, who wondered why he was "playing with dolls" instead of playing sports. But he persisted and while performing at a local fair was spotted by Stu Kerr, the king of kids' television in Baltimore. Kerr invited Clash to audition for his children's program and hired him while he was still in high school. Clash's high school stature rose (and in his yearbook, he was named "most likely to become a millionaire").

One day, while watching television, Clash saw a program featuring Kermit Love, a puppeteer who designed and built muppets for Jim Henson. Clash's mother made some phone calls, tracked down Love, and a visit for the 17-year-old Clash to Love's New York City workshop was arranged. Love got Clash a gig animating Cookie Monster on "Sesame Street" float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. At an after-party, he met his idol, Henson, who asked Clash to send him some tapes of his work.

Kerr, meanwhile, had told Bob Keeshan, a.k.a. Captain Kangaroo, about Clash, and the captain hired the kid immediately. At age 18, Clash moved to New York to take up his job on the show and then quickly also was hired for "The Great Space Coaster."

Henson invited Clash to work on his feature film "The Dark Crystal," but Clash demurred, unwilling to give up his work on the two TV programs. In short order, "Captain Kangaroo" was canceled, and "Great Space Coaster" also went off the air. But Henson came calling again, and Clash, at age 25, was hired to work on Henson's "Labyrinth."

He then moved to "Sesame Street" and animated several other puppets before taking up Elmo after another puppeteer grew frustrated with the character. Clash picked up the little red furry Muppet, changed his voice from baritone to falsetto and imbued him with a new childlike lovability inspired by the tots in his mother's day care.

Elmo became a sensation. And when the Tickle Me Elmo toy came out, Clash's world really changed. He began traveling widely, meeting all kinds of celebrities -- former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan as well as Oprah Winfrey. Meanwhile, though, his marriage and relationship with his own daughter were suffering even as he made countless appearances for other children.

"There I was, spending my time, playing with them. I felt I would rather be with Shannon, giving her that time," Clash says in the film. Though the documentary doesn't get specific, it's implied that Clash's devotion to Elmo cost him his marriage.

Clash, though, seems anything but bitter. He's become one of the most senior players at "Sesame Street." At the end of the film, the now-50-year-old meets a young African American boy who seems to be just as interested in puppeteering as Clash was at the same age. Clash invited the boy to his office and even invited him to Sundance.

The two appeared Sunday at a question-and-answer session after the movie's debut. Although no distributor has yet bought the film, we can't help but think that Winfrey's OWN Network might be highly interested -- after all, as the movie shows, she had Clash and Elmo on her talk show in the past.

At the Q&A, Clash teared up about the film, his parents and all things Muppet, his affection for Elmo plain as day. In the clip below, he talks about Elmo's evolution, as well as his anatomy.

 -- Julie Makinen in Park City, Utah

 Photo: Kevin Clash, animating Elmo on "Sesame Street." Credit: Richard Termine