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

September 18, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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