The man who isn't Elmo

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September 10, 2006|By LAURA VOZZELLA

Don't let the Muppet on the cover fool you. My Life as a Furry Red Monster isn't a kids' book. It's the life story of Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Sesame Street's Elmo, who grew up in a Turners Station home filled with love, children - and "chemical odors" from the nearby Bethlehem Steel mill. How'd he get from there to "where the air is sweet?"

"Kind of like a Cinderfella story," is how Clash summed it up to me the other day in his very un-Elmo baritone. "I'm not Elmo. I went through what everybody else went through."

Clash had plenty of sunny days sweeping the clouds away. But there were also some painful racial issues: a tense family drive from grandma's house in Baltimore during the 1968 riots; a friendship strained by the prospect of an interracial kiss in the Dundalk High School production of Guys and Dolls. (A white friend asked Clash, who is black, to give up the romantic lead because the script called for them to smooch. He refused, so she dropped out of the play.)

Clash, 45, is the son of a welder and a home day-care provider who supported their son's consuming passion for puppetry. His pastime couldn't have been the easiest thing to nurture in a blue-collar neighborhood where the average 12-year-old boy's idea of a Saturday outing wasn't a trip to Jo-Ann Fabrics to buy fake fur for puppets.

("I relish the satisfying whump the [fabric] bolt makes on the [cutting] table," he writes. "Even today, I can still hear the sound of the clerk's pinking shears separating my treasure from the rest.")

"My father helped me build my first puppet stage," Clash told me. "Mom taught me how to sew on a Singer sewing machine."

His mother helped in another way: her day-care charges were the young puppeteer's "captive audience."

"I was very lucky to have that," said Clash, who will appear at the Baltimore Book Festival on Oct. 1. "I would do the shows for them, and if they crawled or walked away, I would take that out of the show."

Sesame viewers never see Elmo's parents, but their names, Gladys and George, are mentioned in one episode of Elmo's World. Gladys and George Clash still live in Turners Station.

Does this ballot make me look fat?

We finally know what William Donald Schaefer was thinking when he called Janet Owens "Mother Hubbard," made fun of her clothes and hair, said she looked like a man and was "getting fat." He was thinking that you shouldn't judge book by its cover. So says a letter he sent to Owens Friday. In it, Schaefer accused her of running "a campaign based on age discrimination."

"Do you want people to judge you by your looks, and arbitrary age, or your abilities?" Schaefer wrote. "My point now and when I described your older-looking appearance is that we should be judged on our abilities, not on our age or how young we look."

No one expected Schaefer to eat crow. But did anybody think he'd play the crowsfoot card?

Schaefer, 84, says Owens' campaign is a "thinly-veiled attack on older people." His proof: her slogan, "It's time;" and Owens' comment that she felt like she was taking the keys away from grandpa when she told Schaefer she was running against him.

Maybe the strategy will help Schaefer win over some senior citizens.

But will fat voters forgive him?

What percentage of the electorate is obese, I asked Richard Vatz, my recent partner in parsing Schaeferese? Thirty percent?

The Towson rhetoric professor said the real question is, "What percentage of the electorate thinks it's obese? Zero."

Connecting the dots

Another famous son of Turners Station was scheduled to speak yesterday at the community's "Unity Celebration." U.S. Senate hopeful Kweisi Mfume's topic: "Family Values." ... The folks at Baltimore's Board of Elections, which sent out postcards advertising early voting before the state's highest court canceled it, aren't Baltimore's only gun-jumping bureaucrats. The city's transportation department sent out a traffic advisory last week, announcing that several streets would be closed this weekend for the demolition of the Rochambeau apartment building. It went out hours before a court hearing to decide if the demolition should go forward. ... Baltimore City Councilman Jack Young thinks there's "something personal going on" because Councilman Bobby Curran hasn't moved one of his bills out of committee. In an e-mail sent to council members, he asked City Council President Sheila Dixon to send his bills elsewhere in the future. Councilman Keiffer Mitchell offered a solution: the defunct professional and municipal sports committee. "I suggest you honor the good councilman's wishes," Mitchell wrote, "and assign his legislation to that committee."

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