You have to hand it to Elmo. That little red Muppet sure knows how to work a crowd.
"Elmo love coming to Baltimore," he shouted in that squeaky, happy voice of his to a gym full of tiny kids sitting on exercise mats at John Eager Howard Elementary School. And the kids went wild at hearing "love" and the name of their hometown as the first words coming out of the mouth of the manic character they watch every morning on public TV.
Elmo and the celebrated puppeteer who brings him to life, Baltimore native Kevin Clash, came to the school recently to promote PBS KIDS Raising Readers, a national literacy project that shares some of the same core goals as "Sesame Street" when it launched in 1969. Chief among them: to help disadvantaged kids between the ages of 2 and 8 learn to read so that they can compete when they start school.
Many of the kids in the room screaming for Elmo were graduates of reading camps funded by the program. All appeared to be fans of "Sesame Street," which starts its 41st season Monday on PBS.
On the air day in and day out for four decades, this culture-changing show has not lost its hard-edged focus of using crazed and lovable characters like Elmo to help educate kids. And the research is there, from the University of Kansas and elsewhere, showing that kids who watch PBS shows like "Sesame Street" do better in school and on assessment tests.
But that's only what the adults with the doctorates who were trooping up to the podium in the recreation room at John Eager Howard were talking and thinking about during Elmo's visit. The kids could not take their eyes off Elmo, who stood leaning over the top of a blue cafe curtain that hid the puppeteer and a monitor he watched as he worked his Elmo magic on the kids.
The podium was next to the curtain, and Elmo, when he wasn't rolling his eyes or mugging, would sidle over to the podium and stare up rapturously at the speaker. Sometimes he'd share a little banter with the speaker, and suddenly the kids would remember there was an adult standing there moving his or her lips.
Not that what they were saying wasn't important. In fact, it was so important it had the power to change the lives of every child in that room — something that Clash himself could testify to.
Earlier, before the performance started, Clash, who just turned 50, talked about the issues he had learning to read when he was growing up in Turners Station in southeastern Baltimore County.
"That was my challenge growing up," he said. "I was terrible at reading — terrible. You know how they used to do in school where you'd have a book and the teacher would go around the class, and you'd have to read a certain part of the chapter or something? Well, they'd get to me, and I just couldn't do it. I was so scared, because I really wasn't good at reading."
Clash said his early interest in puppets and show business was his avenue to learning how to read on his own. (He was sewing his own puppets out of scraps of cloth by age 12, and performing at charity events in Baltimore a year later.)
"I found that I was interested in entertainment, so I started reading the TV Guide, and that's what actually taught me to read," the 11-time Emmy Award-winner says. "Really, it's true. So I know how important reading is, and how it can change your life. Raising Readers is a phenomenal program, because it carries on what was started at the very beginning with 'Sesame Street' in educating kids by using TV, and it's a big part of what I still do today — going around to cities that have programs like this."
Clash and Elmo were involved in a bit of controversy last week when Sesame Workshop decided to pull a video scheduled for Monday's show. The video featured Elmo and pop singer Katy Perry in a parody of her song "Hot 'N' Cold." After seeing the video on YouTube last week, some parents complained about the low-cut dress Perry was wearing. It made for some Internet buzz, but it is not what Elmo and Clash are mainly about. Elmo and Clash are about what happened at John Eager Howard.
All of the talk at the podium by all the grown-ups with titles in front of and letters behind their names was a mere prelude to the moment when a music teacher from the school crouched down in front of the kids on the mats and raised her hands in the conductor's sign for "pay attention."
"We have a surprise for you, Elmo," a teacher said. And Elmo made guess after guess as to what it was. And time after time, he was wrong by a mile.
Finally, the kids told him it was a song, and he said that "was the best gift of all."
And then, another teacher sat down at an electric piano and vamped the opening for the song that every parent and child who has ever watched "Sesame Street" knows: "Elmo's World."
Only Elmo acted like he didn't recognize it. He cocked his head sideways like he was trying to figure it out. Then he shook his head in bewilderment and gave the kids pleading looks of confusion. And it made the kids crazy. How the music teacher held their attention, only the gods of music know — until they started singing.
Elmo milked it a little longer, but when the kids hit the first chorus and sang the words, "It's Elmo's world," the red Muppet waited a syncopated beat and then sang out as if in answer, "Elmo's world," and the kids were in heaven.
There was something so sweet, special and even transcendent about Elmo and those kids singing together on a sunny morning in a schoolroom that you couldn't help but be hopeful. That's something else "Sesame Street" has done for 40 years: instill a sense of shared optimism, accomplishment and community in kids from all social classes.
Robert Shuman, president and CEO of Maryland Public Television, which is one of 20 public TV stations in a pilot program bringing literacy resources to kids, took a turn at the podium and shared some kidding with Elmo.
But he was all seriousness in an interview earlier at the school when he was asked about the role "Sesame Street" continues to play, not just in the lives of American children but globally with kids around the world.
"How much entertainment stuff do we send out around the world?" Shuman said. "And I have always been frustrated, disappointed, whatever you want to call it, that most of the film and video we send out is what it is. But this — this is the Peace Corps. This something that we as Americans can be proud of."