Puppeteer gives Elmo character

Local: Baltimore native Kevin Clash will bring the `Sesame Street' favorite to life at Port Discovery.

August 23, 1999|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

Who would have figured that playing around with a bit of fleece would have meant so very much?

For Baltimore native Kevin Clash, it has meant being able to travel around the globe, to places from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Shanghai, China.

Clash is the brains, voice and movement behind "Sesame Street's" popular Elmo character. He began his love affair with puppetry as a 10-year-old while living in Baltimore County's Turner's Station. He used the fleece lining from his mother's coat to make a monkey puppet.

The story, oddly enough, recalls how Muppets founder and Clash mentor Jim Henson made the original Kermit the Frog out of his mother's coat -- though it didn't look quite like the Kermit the Frog of today, a spokesman for Jim Henson Productions says.

Master puppeteer Clash will be in town tomorrow, with Elmo in hand, of course.

"We're excited about having him for a couple of reasons," says Bea Taylor, director of education and government affairs for Port Discovery.

"He's one of the favorite characters for people who watch Sesame Street," she says. "And we have a `Hero' program, whether it's the policeman on the corner or Kevin Clash. He took his childhood dream and worked to make it a reality. And he's a Baltimorean."

The "Hero" program honors people who have reached a goal in their lives. There are posters of some of the honorees at Port Discovery, while others are invited to speak at the museum.

`Sesame Street' exhibit

The kids' museum at Market Place is featuring the traveling, hands-on exhibit "Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?", a 30-year retrospective of the children's show, until Sept. 19.

Clash's most prominent alter ego, "Sesame Street's" bright-eyed, cuddly and red Elmo, will probably get more attention from the young set than he will.

"Elmo will be there to meet and greet people," he says, starting at 11: 30 a.m. at the children's museum. A puppet-making workshop will follow, and then Clash will talk about how his career in puppetry began.

At age 12, he was doing puppet shows for neighborhood children and then at local schools and the Inner Harbor. The late Stu Kerr -- a pioneering television host with a four-decade career in broadcasting who worked as everything from a weatherman to playing Baltimore's Bozo the Clown -- hired Clash to perform on WMAR's "Caboose," a children's show.

In 1979, Clash worked on the syndicated children's show "The Great Space Coaster." And he also appeared on the "Captain Kangaroo" show.

Muppet creator Jim Henson -- who died of pneumonia caused by a strep infection in 1990 -- caught one of the television shows and was impressed enough to hire him.

Henson became Clash's mentor and friend.

"Being a young puppeteer in Baltimore, of course I always wanted to meet Jim," Clash said in a 1994 interview with The Sun. "I miss his friendship. I miss his creativity."

Clash has worked on "Sesame Street" since the early 1980s. In 1993, he won an Emmy Award for his performance on the show.

We last talked to Clash almost three years ago, at the height of the Tickle Me Elmo frenzy. Although the Tickle Me Elmo doll has been replaced by all things Pokemon among must-have children's toys, Clash is as busy as ever.

"I've been traveling a lot around the world," Clash said last week, in a telephone conversation from New York. Clash searches for new, promising puppeteers as a scout for the Jim Henson Company.

When he isn't scouting, he's traveling for the Children's Television Workshop, which produces "Sesame Street." The South African and China trips were to help set up "Sesame Street" productions there.

The American version of "Sesame Street" appears in some countries, while others have local versions.

Behind the scenes

Clash isn't prepared to quit puppeteering, but he enjoys being behind the camera.

"I enjoy not just performing the characters but the behind the scenes things -- producing and directing," he says.

"I was co-executive producer on an Elmo made-for-TV movie," he says. The Elmo movie, "Cinder Elmo," is a holiday-themed film that will air on the Fox network in December.

He was also the co-producer on a new Elmo movie, soon to hit the big screen. "Be sure to tell people to come out and see `The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland,' opening Oct. 1," Clash says.

Still, the day may come when Clash isn't sharing the spotlight with the little furry one.

"I might want to get into acting," Clash says. "I don't know if I have the time, but I have so many friends in the industry, and I am getting offers."

At Port Discovery

What: Elmo and Kevin Clash

Where: Port Discovery, 35 Market Place

When: Tomorrow, Tuesday, August 24. 11: 30 a.m.

Cost: Museum admission is $10; $7.50 for ages 3-12; $3 for children younger than 3

Call: 410-727-8120

Pub Date: 8/23/99

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