On the street where he lives: Kevin Clash, Muppet master ELMO'S FIRE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New York -- He was a shy, serious boy growing up in a poor Baltimore County household where neighborhood kids teased him about staying inside and playing with dolls.

They weren't dolls. They were puppets, and he made hundreds of them out of bedroom slippers, the fleece lining of coats and anything else he could find. Made them dance and joke and sing, as he lip-synced to records -- even Barry Manilow records.

Kevin Clash discovered it doesn't necessarily take money or other middle-class advantages to spark a talent. It sometimes takes a bedroom slipper, a mentor or two, and a child's prodigious imagination.

And that's how it began for Kevin Clash, the 34-year-old master ** puppeteer on "Sesame Street."

The Dundalk High School graduate was born and raised in Turners Station, in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel. It's the birthplace of an Emmy-award winning children's performer. Kevin Clash. What a cool name!

He was 8 when he picked up one of his mom's bedroom slippers, put his right hand in the sliver of cloth and padding and brought it to life in an early, amateurish way. He had always wanted a pet dog, but his parents had said no. So, one rainy day, he noticed a stuffed toy dog in a mud puddle near his home. He took it home, cleaned and gutted it, and brought that to life as a puppet, too.

Later, somebody named Jim Henson came calling for Kevin Clash. Then came New York, one fun job on "Sesame Street," one good marriage, and a 2-year-old daughter named Shannon who insists on calling her father by his other name:

Elmo.

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"Sesame Street" has been brought to you today by the letters D and L and the number 0. "Sesame Street" is a production of the Children's Television Workshop.

And CUT.

"I was excellent!" Telly says off-camera. He and fellow Muppet Kingston have finished a two-minute bit about reading and letter writing. Aggressive, frantic Telly then busts into a rendition of the Eagles' "Hotel California." A cameraman in a ponytail says, "Ah, Sesame Street Unplugged!"

From under the stage crate, Kevin Clash emerges off a cushion and head rest. The puppeteer has been lying on his back, working his muscular right arm, working his mouth, and working Kingston into character.

LUNCH, and be back at 2:15, please, a loud speaker bellows from the rafters of "Sesame Street" in the Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens. Also in the rafters above Sesame Street, the elephantine Snuffleupagus hangs, waiting to be lowered again for a Muppet sketch. Nearby, a Barney the Dinosaur doll dangles from a camera's tripod. A white hangman's noose is snug around Barney's throat.

Someone collects the puppeteers' head sets, and the Muppets "go to sleep" in a wardrobe locker, which is locked during lunch. It's the beginning of "Sesame Street's" 26th season -- 110 shows to be taped in the next five months. It's time for a catered turkey sandwich, Snapple iced tea and chips in the cast lounge, where Kevin Clash can take a break and rest his right arm.

Kevin was relaxing in the puppeteer's lounge one day in 1985 when a colleague brought in Elmo, dangling like a rag. "He threw it to me," Kevin says, and essentially said: Here, Elmo isn't working for me anymore. Do something with him.

Kevin had in his hands his first main Sesame Street character.

Elmo: baby voice, mighty young and innocent, totally devoted to you. In the pantheon of Muppet characters, the late Jim Henson was Kermit the Frog; the great Frank Oz is still Bert of Bert-and-Ernie; Caroll Spinney is still walking around as Big Bird; and Kevin Clash is all Elmo.

"Elmo takes me back to my childhood and my mom taking care of me and all those kids she would care for in our home," Kevin says. His mother, Gladys Clash, baby-sat for children in their Turners Station home. Her son put on puppet shows, sometimes charging a quarter. "If the kids got bored, I'd throw the part out," Kevin says.

Inquisitive Elmo

Bright-eyed Elmo hops merrily through life, always excited, always wondering about things. He quizzed Whoopi Goldberg on the color of her black skin vs. the color of his red skin. As viewers know, Elmo is a touchy-feely Muppet, a real cuddler. And like all Muppets, Elmo occasionally botches his lines.

His bit with Robin Williams was a gem. Subject: the many uses of a stick. Mr. Williams went on one of his comedic tears, using the stick as Lawrence Welk's baton and then a baseball bat. After his controlled madness, Mr. Williams handed the stick back to Elmo, who only had to say thank you, Mr. Williams.

"Thank you, Mr. Robins," Elmo said, on what became a much-traveled blooper. The camera stays on Elmo as he sinks down into the crate, wallowing in shame, and whispering, "I had only three words to say, only three words . . ."

Kevin Clash acts with enough celebrities that he begins sentences with, "Shoot, what's that guy's name?" Joe Pesci. Mel Gibson. Singing with George Benson on a just-recorded album called "Kermit Unplugged."

Elmo is red hot.

"I was in love with Elmo from the first moment I laid eyes on him," says actress Jamie Lee Curtis in a press release about a puppet. "I contemplated leaving my husband and running away for a life of laughs with Elmo. I carry him in my heart everyday."

Friends

Kevin "started loving puppets somewhere at birth," says Jim Martin, who performs background characters on "Sesame Street." He and Kevin go way back.

In 1979, they worked on the syndicated children's show, "The Great Space Coaster." Kevin was commuting to New York from Baltimore; Jim from Pittsburgh. Together they sublet apartments such homey New York locales as Hell's Kitchen.

The pair eventually went to work on CBS' "Captain Kangaroo." The puppeteers would sometimes stay up all night, making puppets for the next day's shoot. Hundreds of characters were born hours after Johnny Carson said good-night.

"Kevin has been my friend," Jim says. "He's the kind of person I want to know for the rest of my life."

Kevin is the kind of man, Jim says, who has gone into a department store, picked out two of every Muppet character, rang up a monster tab and donated the dolls to some homeless or children's shelter. And he'd be the last guy to bring it up in conversation.

In conversation, Kevin talks about other things, but the one thing that can be difficult for artists to articulate is exactly how they work. How do you explain instinct? It's easier to talk about his admiration and appreciation for Jim Henson. He also mounts a passionate defense of the much maligned Barney -- don't bash something kids enjoy so much, Kevin says. The act works.

Kevin also talks about the "illusion" of television. He remembers Mel Gibson not wanting to bring his kids on the set because the illusion would be shot: crew or cast members shouting "The sky is blue," code words for kids-on-the-set, so watch your language; Muppets hanging from wardrobe hooks or from the ceiling; funny men crumpled on the ground and talking through their hands.

But the kids don't even notice, Kevin says. The willing suspension of disbelief is the fancy phrase for it. When he's Elmo, Natasha or Hoots the Owl (the hip sax player), the kids acting with him relate to what's on his hand.

"We're nothing to them," Kevin says.

How does he make Elmo or Hoots do what they do, be who they are? What is going on in his head when he improvises? How does he make all these creative decisions?

"The Muppets make them for me," Kevin says, explaining little.

"Kevin can put soul in a character," says his friend Jim Martin. "I wish I could see through his eyes."

Lisa Simon, "Sesame Street's" long-time supervising producer, says when Kevin performs, "You believe he is the complete character, not just arms and hands and mouth." She says, "He's the Muppet master."

Others talk of Kevin's comic timing. Attention to detail. Student of human habits. His creation of clean and clear characters -- a Henson trademark of puppeteering.

And Kevin lives by the in-house Muppet maxim: Stay true to the character.

"He's not tainted by any formal training. He's a self-made performer," says Henson's son, Brian, who is president of Jim Henson Productions. "His style is unique and he works so hard at it. And it's straight from his heart."

Kevin's resume extends beyond "Sesame Street." His other characters include Clifford and Leon from "The Jim Henson Hour," Eliot Shag on "Jim Henson's Dog City" (Kevin's least favorite character), Baby Sinclair from "Dinosaurs," and the old, wise rat, Splinter, in both "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movies.

But this afternoon, after lunch, he's scheduled to be Elmo again.

In character

In a "Theater in the Park" segment called "The Grapes of Math," Elmo will count grapes with a 3-year-old boy named Carrington, who will spend a good part of the lengthy shoot staring at boom microphones, monitors and anybody off-camera. Like other Muppet characters, Elmo will nudge and tickle and do anything to keep the kid's attention while the crew sets up the shot.

Kevin is lying on his back under a picnic table. Carrington has been brought on the set, screaming "Elmo, where are you???!!!"

The boy sits on a crate next to Elmo (crates are big here). "Give me a hug!" Elmo says, then sings a made-up song packed with la-la's. Things go wrong in the shooting, undetected by the untrained eye. It's remarkable how long it takes to tape two minutes of one kid and one Muppet counting seven grapes.

Kevin as Elmo works the hardest between takes. "Give Elmo a kiss?" Carrington does, then wipes off the kiss, making Kevin laugh out of character. By about 4 p.m., "The Grapes of Math" is shot.

"We did very well, didn't we?" says Elmo, just before Kevin unplugs his arm.

Baltimore roots

In the home of Gladys and George Clash, an Elmo doll sits in the corner of the plastic-covered sofa. A green, overstuffed photo album is on the coffee table. It stores the articles about Kevin and stuff such as first-place certificates from "Romper Room" and for cross country running and reminders of his high school stage performances in "Oliver" and "Guys and Dolls."

Kevin still lives just around the Beltway from his parents. He and his wife, Genia, a nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, have a home in Catonsville with their 2-year-old daughter, Shannon. They also have a place in New York, where Kevin works.

When he returns to Catonsville on weekends, he'll drop his bags, leave the room and later find every piece of clothing ejected from his luggage. Shannon has pillaged his stuff in search of Elmo -- which Kevin occasionally brings home for special appearances.

Kevin is the second oldest in a family of two boys and two girls. His mother's hobby is sewing. His father is a maintenance worker who can draw quite well. As their genetic beneficiary, Kevin was a creator-in-waiting.

"He was a very quiet, very deep, very serious boy," his mom says. A 10-year-old boy who stunned her by taking the fleece lining from her coat and making a monkey puppet. One of his first puppets was Bartee, named after a schoolmate. "You have talent, son, let me tell you," she recalls telling Kevin. And she taught him a thing or two about sewing. Neighbors chipped in old wigs and gowns, and Kevin was in business.

"He got good," Gladys says.

The point is, she says, is that people don't need a lot of money or opportunities. "We were dirt poor," she says.

Sometimes Kevin would have to take a cab to shopping malls or schools to perform with his puppets. Sometimes the cab would be late, but he always showed. A reputation was born.

In 1978, Stu Kerr befriended Kevin and made him a part of "Caboose," Kerr's fondly remembered children's show out of Baltimore. Many times his mother drove Kevin to work at Channel 2 in a beat-up, yellow car that would slip-slide over the icy streets.

In one quantum leap, Kevin went from Turners Station to New York. After high school, he attended a workshop in New York run by the legendary puppeteer Kermit Love, who created Big Bird. Gladys Clash remembers Kevin wanted to attend so he could learn to make puppets' eyes move.

Kevin's puppetry soon came to the attention of Jim Henson, the University of Maryland graduate who built the Muppet empire and who died unexpectedly of pneumonia in 1990. Mr. Henson became another of what friend Jim Martin calls "the right people Kevin chose to admire."

The Henson legend

"Being a young puppeteer in Baltimore, of course I always wanted to meet Jim," says Kevin, who has worked on "Sesame Street" since the early 1980s. "I miss his friendship. I miss his creativity."

Kevin worked side-by-side, crate-by-crate with Henson, who bestowed upon Kevin the job of casting director. He handpicks all the Muppet characters used in each scene. He also holds workshops across the country and scouts budding puppeteers.

In Turners Station, Gladys Clash remembers snatches of Kevin's life. She remembers how he was a slow reader, remembers when Jim Henson would call the house, remembers how she kidded Kevin about his wiry hair. She also wonders why her boy doesn't let her know every time he's on television.

Gladys Clash closes the fat photo album. She takes a book down from the bookshelf, a Christmas present Kevin gave his parents. It's a copy of Jim Henson's book, "The Works." Kevin Clash wrote a little something in the treasured book:

To: Mom and Dad,

I wouldn't have gotten so far as I have if it wasn't for your support and love. I don't say this as much as I should . . .

Love,

D8 Kevin, Bartee, Sinclair, Hoots, Clifford, Elmo . . .

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