Voice of Elmo charms young and old

By Sara Blair Matthews

Contributing Writer

Embrace the child in you and don’t let yourself get bogged down by challenges, said Kevin Clash, puppeteer and the voice behind Sesame Street’s Elmo on Tuesday in the Weis Center for the Performing Arts.

Clash, who visited campus as part of the University Forum series “Creativity: Beyond the Box”, participated in a Q&A session at 7:30 p.m. Both he and Elmo greeted fans, young and old, at the Barnes & Noble at Bucknell University bookstore earlier in the day. Both events were free and open to the public.

Clash said his love of puppets developed from an early age. He remembers cutting the lining from his father’s coat and being inspired by the red fabric. He built puppets in his living room while watching TV in the afternoons. Clash said  his parents were a big part of why he continued his dream of being a puppeteer.

“They always supported my creativity. My mom would take me to fabric stores on the weekends. She taught me how to sew on our singer sewing machine,” Clash said.

Clash started performing in recreation halls of local churches at age 10, incorporating his characters into his performances, quickly gaining support from community members. His breakthrough in puppeteering was when he was filmed in Chicago doing a show, he said.

Clash then talked about the character of Elmo, who some say has an even bigger following than Santa Claus. Many audience members asked how he makes Elmo relatable. He said that he, as well as many other puppeteers, observe people’s body language to gain insight into how their puppets would act.

“Even a certain tilt of the head can mean something. We [puppeteers] find ways of finding the expressions we want, ” Clash said.

“Elmo was a very simple puppet in the beginning. We [had to] find ways of finding the expressions we wanted,” Clash said. He had no legs, and his throat was made of pipe.

There are currently nine Elmos in rotation on Sesame Street, which is broadcast in over 180 languages. Some are radio controlled, one has a “kicky leg” and one is used for Elmo’s dancing scenes.

Clash said the research department is what sets Sesame Street apart from other children’s shows. Each year the show has a specific curriculum that is designed to both entertain and teach the kids watching the show.

When asked how he is able to keep portraying Elmo’s childlike sense of wonder every year, Clash said that in some ways he feels like he has Peter Pan syndrome.

“We can choose to bring out [the child in us] or we can get bogged down with challenges. When celebrities come onto the show [Robert De Niro was Elmo’s favorite celebrity to appear on the show], a sense of awe and happiness always comes over their faces and it brings back their childhood memories, ” Clash said. 

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