Kevin Clash shines in new documentary 'Being Elmo'

When Kevin Clash was a boy in Baltimore County, he'd watch TV mere inches from the screen and wish he could walk right into "Sesame Street."

It didn't take him long to get there. At 15, the kid from Turners Station became the regular puppeteer on a WMAR kids show. At 19, he performed as Cookie Monster in the Sesame Street float at the 1979 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and that night met his hero, Muppet creator Jim Henson. "Sesame Street" hired Clash in his early 20s.

Before he turned 25, he took a gravel-throated red fur-ball and imbued him with a loving nature, a piping voice and a rapscallion innocence. He made Elmo the mightiest little Muppet of them all.

Now, Clash is the star of "Being Elmo," a potent, moving mini-epic of a documentary that opens Friday at the Charles Theatre.

"Being Elmo" gave Clash the chance to speak in his own voice about his art, his credo and his life.

"I wanted to put a voice and a face to what we puppeteers do," he said. "And we can't do that with puppets. I can't talk about performing, and what I get from it, when I'm appearing as Elmo."

What emerges is a portrait of an entertainer who links his ecstasy in creating character and comedy to his instinct that you gain in strength by strengthening others. The movie doesn't flinch from troubling or heartbreaking moments, such as the abrupt death of Henson, or shy away from his life's one bitter irony — that a man dedicated to children has often been too busy to spend time with his daughter.

"He wouldn't want to be called a hero," co-director/editor Philip Shane wrote in an email. "But, to me and millions of others, he surely is."

Clash, 51, said that when he started working with the film's director, Constance Marks, he aimed to communicate "the joy of being a puppeteer and the enjoyment of working with great people." He and the movie do this so well that when young Clash first touches the Muppets' trademark material — fleece — Clash might as well be the mythical hero Jason, and the fleece might as well be golden.

As for "the enjoyment of working with great people" — that's something Clash has felt since he was a puppet-obsessed boy. He's thrilled to be coming with director Marks, her husband (the movie's cinematographer, James Miller), and Baltimore-born-and-raised Shane to the Charles for the Mobtown premiere.

"Baltimore was phenomenal to me," Clash said. "I was so lucky to live in a city where all the different towns and neighborhoods are so connected to each other. And they accepted me all over. "

He benefited from marvelous mentors, starting with his mother and father. Not only were they creative themselves (his father could draw, his mother sewed cloth on her shoes to match her outfits), but "they reprimanded us in a way that didn't stop our creativity." When Clash appropriated the zippered-in lining from his dad's coat to make a puppet, his mom was delighted by his ingenuity. His dad just told him to ask first next time.

WMAR's all-purpose entertainer Stu Kerr not only made this teen wonder the resident puppeteer for his kids' show, "Caboose," but also angled an in for Clash at "Captain Kangaroo." (WMAR technician John Ziemann — the president of the Baltimore Colts Band/Marching Ravens — set up the audition taping.) Kerr, Clash said, taught him "the importance of working together."

When Clash saw Kermit Love, creator of Big Bird and Snuffleupagus, profiled on a PBS kids show, his mother wouldn't rest until she located Love's phone number. In a spine-tingling sequence, Love ushers Clash into his Great Jones Street workshop in New York. Clash is desperate to know why he can never spot a telltale seam in a Muppet. Love reveals the secret of "the Henson stitch."

This movie is seamless, too.

What director Marks called her "seven-year labor of love" started when her husband, James Miller, who did camera work for "Sesame Street," came home with a videotaped greeting from Elmo to their then-2-year-old daughter Sophia. James showed Elmo pictures of Sophia. Elmo provided his gamboling kind of running commentary — "oh, there you are with your daddy, oh, there you are in a bathtub" — interspersed with "Elmo loves you."

"I asked who was behind this incredible character; he really must be an amazing guy," Marks said. "I told my husband to tell him that his wife had a crush on him and wanted to make a documentary about him."

Clash and Marks meshed. She said she knew she had to make her audience "understand what puppeteers do — this was something I needed to learn about and convey." She also discerned that mentorship would give the film a compelling through-line.

A year ago last week, Marks was thrilled to witness Clash meet a gifted 10-year-old puppeteer, Tau Bennett, and patiently teach him how to make a character more expressive.

"This is what made Kevin's own life possible," Marks said. "All these kind people recognized his enormous talent."

Clash was a high school senior when he met Love; Bennett was 11 when he made his debut on "Sesame Street." Clash, like Love, pays it forward.

The film's powerhouse structure came from its co-director/cutter, Shane — a Baltimore native. He instantly sparked to the material. Shane realized that Clash fit Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" uncannily well, like a real Luke Skywalker.

"What was amazing to me, right from the first time I looked at the full breadth of Kevin's life, was how he truly he has lived that [Campbell kind of] epic journey," Shane wrote in an email. "The young hero in ordinary surroundings, "struck by the sight of a 'herald,' or an 'angel'" — that was Clash watching "Sesame Street" in Turners Station, with Bert and Ernie as unlikely Muppet angels.

Clash, like Campbell's archetype, had to meet tests of skill and character and be able to learn from mentors. He also faced tragedy and made sacrifices.

Ultimately, in 'Being Elmo" as in Campbell, said Shane, the "truly beautiful part of the hero's journey is the end, when he returns home, having achieved his dream ... with such a magical gift that he can renew the entire world, filling it with love."

"My goodness, if you look at what Kevin has brought to all the children, and adults, of the world you see that this is no ancient myth — it's a true story. It's Kevin's story. It began in Baltimore, and now it reaches around the world."