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Kevin Clash may be one of the most popular unrecognizable performers in the world. One would never guess a man as big as Clash could deliver the squeaky, high-pitched voice and bouncy glee of Elmo, the sweet little red puppet whose fame has eclipsed most of Jim Henson's legendary Sesame Street characters.
Constance Marks's Being Elmo is the story of how Clash, a kid from working-class Baltimore, rose to the top of the world of puppets and Muppets. He was teased for "playing with dolls" while growing up, but his parents always supported him; before he graduated high school, his own puppets were regulars on a Baltimore TV program. On a class trip to New York City, Clash skipped the itinerary and made his way to the studio of Kermit Love, who built many of Henson's characters. When he graduated from high school, Clash went right back to New York.
In the mid-1970s, The Muppet Show took off, and opportunities in puppetry exploded. Clash worked hard to fit into the world created by Henson and Frank Oz. His early characters included the unremarkable Hoots the Owl, a Beat poet-styled character named after Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a scientist. His real chance came with a little red puppet that had been around for quite some time but had never picked up a defining personality. Richard Hunt had given him a deep, gravelly voice and a caveman dialect of sentence fragments. When Hunt gave up, he literally tossed the doll to Clash, who immediately struck upon a lasting persona.
Clash rose to the top ranks of the Sesame Workshop, and puppetry is his life — so much so his ex-wife feared he'd treat their baby like a puppet. People's response to Elmo seems to reflect Clash's personal warmth. But as some people in the film note, Clash is most comfortable as Elmo. Marks gives viewers a pretty good idea of where the inspiration for Elmo comes from, but she strikes a careful balance. The film is about Clash and it won't drive away people with strong aversions to cutesiness. It also won't alienate Elmo fans who prefer to suspend their disbelief. But there seems to be more to Clash than Marks reveals, and it's easy for even non-Sesame Street watchers to want to know even more about being Elmo. Tickets $7 general admission, $6 students/seniors, $5 Zeitgeist members. — Will Coviello