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'Being Elmo,' 'The Muppets' show puppets' real touch

The documentary about Kevin Clash and the comedy starring Jason Segel reflect a lasting affection for the creations in an era of computer-generated characters.

October 30, 2011|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • Kevin Clash, the puppeteer of Elmo and the subject of the documentary "Being Elmo."
Kevin Clash, the puppeteer of Elmo and the subject of the documentary "Being… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

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.

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