Tickled by that Muppet magic
PUPPETEER Kevin Clash was born in Baltimore, and grew up in a suburb that, although disappointingly unlike Thewire or a John Waters joint, was certainly more “street” than Sesame Street. In 1969, the young Kevin watched, entranced, as Jim Henson’s creatures made their PBS debut. A shy, dedicated teen with adorable, supportive parents, Kevin was soon spending every waking minute building and voicing puppets and putting on shows for the neighbourhood kids.
But how did Henson get the seams to disappear? He had a chance to find out when Kevin’s mother cold-called Muppet builder Kermit Love. In due course, Clash’s enthusiasm brought him to the attention of Henson himself: he operated Cookie Monster, everybody’s favourite bulimic, in a Thanksgiving Day parade and worked on Henson’s underrated movies The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.
Today the Baltimore puppeteer is a Muppet Captain and Sesame Street ambassador, travelling the globe to supervise the Street across different languages and cultures.
Constance Marks’s feel-good, all-ages documentary inevitably touches on the history of Jim Henson and the Muppets as it relates Clash’s biographical details. Archival footage from Henson’s funeral featuring a growing number of Muppet performers singing Just One Person could make an automated bank machine weep.
The real star here, however, is Clash’s most beloved creation, Elmo. For Street fans who are old enough to recall Mr Snuffleupagus’s striped pyjamas and Mr Hooper’s “disappearance”, Elmo still feels a little bit like an interloper. But there is something wonderful about that furry red monster. He’s innocent. He’s affectionate. He needs a lot of help and is never too proud to ask a grown up. He loves tickles and hugs. What’s not to like?
Clash reveals that Elmo is the most popular monster with the Make-a-wish foundation – and that he never thought that Tickle Me Elmo would work. “Elmo would never say ‘me’,” says the Muppeteer incredulously. But more than 100 million Elmo owners can’t be wrong, can they?
The star and his handler
Directed by Constance Marks