Inside a baby 'Dinosaur's head Puppeteer Kevin Clash manages to keep a hand in the magic


Thanks go to the many callers who pointed out an error in Accent's story yesterday about Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who does the character of Baby on ABC's "Dinosaurs." Clash is a resident of Catonsville, but he is originally from the other side of town: He's a native of Turner's Station. The Evening Sun regrets the error.

HOLLYWOOD IS all about making magic, but on Stage 18 on the MTM Studio lot in Southern California, it is a crazy kind of magic that they make.

Behind the door that says "Closed Set: Authorized Personnel Only," past all the cables and wires and chairs and antennas, up there under the bright lights, the prehistoric, postmodern creatures that populate ABC's "Dinosaurs" come to their own peculiar form of telegenic life. Whatever the magic, it's another box under another stage for Kevin Clash to sit on.

"I was thinking the other day, I have crouched under stages, behind walls and sets and curtains in places all over the world," said Clash, the Catonsville native who started fooling with puppets in high school and ended up a principal player with the Jim Henson operation that co-produces "Dinosaurs" with the Disney Studio.

Clash seemed to squint in the brightness of the California sunshine as he talked outside the stage. With the hours he works on "Dinosaurs," and the schedule he keeps for his other commitments -- he does Elmo on "Sesame Street," for example, and tries to stop by to see his wife in Baltimore occasionally -- Clash doesn't see the sun shining that often.

On "Dinosaurs," he handles the character of Baby, the ebullient creature whose birth was chronicled in the first episode of this show. Baby is something of the show's breakout character, the kid's constant cry of "Not the Mama, not the Mama" an anthem of infantile rejection that appeals to all ages.

But, if Baby is biggest in name recognition, it is smallest in physical stature. Which means that Clash can do it with one arm tied behind his back as the other one manipulates the puppet's expressive face. The rest of the Sinclair dinosaur family members are big enough to accommodate puppeteers inside the complicated costumes, all of which were constructed in the Henson state-of-the-art creature shop in London, where costumers turned out the movie versions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, among others.

Clash's hand fits inside Baby's malleable head, which sits atop various bodies constructed to position the puppet in situations such as sitting, crouching or crawling. As for Clash's body, it has to be hidden under the stage or behind the refrigerator or wherever else it can stashed out of sight on this set.

One thing to realize about "Dinosaurs" is that it's not done with mirrors or chroma-key or any other special effects. When you walk around the set, you can see Earl and Fran and Robbie and Charlene and all the other members of the Sinclair dinosaur clan trudging around, too. Of course, they might be missing their heads or something, but you get used to that.

"Dinosaurs," which airs Wednesday nights at 8 o'clock on Channel 13 (WJZ), is shot just like any other one-camera, no-audience sitcom. It's done on a stage, in front of a set with a regular director who talks to his actors through the open mouths of their characters.

In addition to the people inside the Henson-designed dinosaurs, there is also a bevy of puppeteers on the side of the stage, using radio control devices to make the characters' mouths, eyebrows, eyes and such move. It's a complicated, multi-layered, high-tech operation just to register an expression of surprise on Fran's face, which makes "Dinosaurs" cost considerably more than the standard price of around $500,000 for a half-hour sitcom.

The puppeteers deliver the lines of their characters, but the words are later recorded again by actors -- Stuart Pankin, Sally Struthers, and others -- on the show's soundtrack. Clash is the only person who handles a puppet and also provides the voice of his character.

As Clash stood in the wings and watched the filming of a scene that didn't involve Baby, he got worried about the character of the wheelchair-bound Grandma Ethyl.

"He shouldn't be laughing like that. He's going to get us in trouble," Clash said, going up during a break to bend down and peer inside the grandmother's costume, delivering his admonition against the high-pitched cackle.

"Who's in there?" Clash asked.

"Brian," said the voice, meaning Brian Henson, the son of the late Jim Henson. Brian came up in the business with Clash and took over after his father's death. He's the co-executive producer of "Dinosaurs" along with veteran producer Michael Jacobs.

"This is the way Brian relaxes," Clash explained. "All those meetings and budgets and stuff get to him. If he can just come down here and be a puppeteer for a few hours, he can put it behind him for a while.

"But Michael's going to get mad at him if he laughs like that. We're not supposed to do that."

The way Clash talked, you get the picture of Henson's Muppeteers as a gypsy-like traveling band that roams the world in search of fun and employment. When the opportunity to do "Dinosaurs" came along, Brian got on the phone and rounded up the usual suspects, who descended on this California stage, bringing along their own form of zaniness that does not always meet with the approval of traditional sitcom producers.

Luckily, more of that zaniness has shown up on screen this season.

"Dinosaurs" was something of a disappointment in its initial spring run, a fairly dull, straightforward comedy that didn't exploit the absurdity of its premise, but this year it's had some great parodies of television to go along with incisive social commentary, as well as more fun, such as an episode that saw the creatures who live inside the dinosaurs' refrigerator rebel and take over the house.

"We got a little mixed up last year," Jacobs acknowledged, citing ABC's decision to schedule the show in the middle of its Friday night kids' lineup. "We thought we were writing an adult show all along, then they put us in the middle of Friday and we didn't quite know what we were supposed to do.

"On Wednesday, we know we're supposed to have a broad appeal to start out the night, so this season we're trying to be a little crazier."

If you go to work every day and see a man-size dinosaur walking around with its mouth open as it listens to stage directions, being crazy should come easy.

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