If you met him on the street, you’d never know that Kevin Jeffery Clash is the voice, heart and soul of the beloved Sesame Street muppet, Elmo. The word is out, thanks to the award-winning documentary film, “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” about the life and career of Kevin Clash.
The film was directed by Constance Marks, and debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, the documentary features archival footage, including Clash puppeteering as a teenager with his own handmade puppets.
Perhaps one of the most outstanding facts about Clash and his passion for creating and working with puppets is that he never let go of his dream. Even his high school classmates recognized his drive and voted him to most likely to become a millionaire.
Clash made his debut on the stage of life Sept. 17, 1960. He began building puppets at the age of 10. Born and raised in Turner’s Station, a predominately Black suburb of Baltimore, Clash’s parents were supportive of his interest in puppetry, driving him to puppet shows, allowing for his love of television and craft, and not urging him to attend college when he announced he was pursuing puppetry professionally.
Clash’s first television work was for a CBS affiliate in Baltimore. He also performed a pelican character for Zep, a local Washington, D.C., show airing on WTOP.
In the early ’80s, he performed regularly, with Jim Martin, on Bob Keeshan’s “Wake Up With the Captain,” a continuation of Captain Kangaroo. Clash performed a young boy named Artie and other characters, built puppets, and occasionally appeared on camera as Kevin the college student, and various ensemble roles.
Clash had grown up watching the Muppets on Sesame Street, but it wasn’t until seeing Muppet designer and builder Kermit Love on an episode of a kids’ show named “Call It Macaroni” that Clash even considered the possibility of working with Jim Henson’s Muppets. Clash’s mother became proactive and, through Maryland Public Television, got Love’s phone number and gave him a call about her son.
“He told her if I’m ever in the New York area to look him up, so he gave her the address and the phone number,” Clash said. “Fortunately, because of the timing, I was actually going up [to New York]. It was on a 12th-grade school trip that I got to actually meet him.”
In 1983, he was officially hired to perform in 10 episodes of Sesame Street. However, at the time he was performing full-time on two other shows, and the producers of both refused to work around his schedule. Thus, Clash was forced to tear up his contract to appear on Sesame Street.
Clash officially became a Sesame Street puppeteer in 1984. Some of his earliest characters included Hoots the Owl and Dr. Nobel Price, later supplemented by the likes of Baby Natasha and Kingston Livingston III.
Clash worked closely with Muppet creator Jim Henson, becoming one of the main performers, appearing in television shows, movies, and specials.
Clash, an Emmy award-winning producer, was co-executive producer for Elmopalooza, co-producer for “The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland,” and co-executive producer for “CinderElmo” and “Elmo’s World.”
He has also served as either puppet coordinator, assistant puppet coordinator, or puppet captain on many productions, including “Labyrinth,” “Muppet Treasure Island,” “The Puzzle Place,” “Big Bag” and “Dog City.” He occasionally played Miss Piggy and Statler in “Muppets Tonight.”
On “Dinosaurs,” one of my favorite puppet series, Clash starred as Baby Sinclair, you know, “not the mama” and also played Howard Handupme and various episodic mammals.
There’s so much more to Kevin Clash and his fascinating work with Elmo and the other puppets. Here are some websites you can check out ABC’s Nightline interview with Kevin and Ju Ju Chang at http://abcnews.go.com/nightline.
And if you want more, simply type Kevin Clash and Elmo on YouTube.