‘Being Elmo’ Celebrates Black Puppeteer Kevin Clash

Until recently, he may be one of Hollywood's best kept secrets.

By Jorge Rivas Feb 01, 2011

Kevin Clash is an Emmy-award-winning performer and producer with dozens of TV and film credits to his name. He’s one of the busiest African American actors working on television today, but very few people would recognize his face.

"Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey," directed by Constance Marks, introduces viewers to the man behind Elmo, the lovable red-furred puppet on Sesame Street. The film won a special jury prize "for creating a documentary for all ages" at Sundance on Saturday.

"There’s something here going on with this man that enables him to connect to children, adults in a profound way," the director said about Marks in a video interview.

Often working without a script, Clash is the heart and soul of Elmo. He’s been entertaining and educating kids for two decades on the national PBS show. The puppeteer got his start at 7 years old in his parents’ Baltimore-area home. He’d create his own puppets from things he found around the house and put on backyard shows for neighborhood kids.

The film made its premiere at this year’s Sundance festival. According to many reviews it’s got a lot of potential to bring different cultures together by changing perceptions that people may have of black men–especially if you consider people whose only interactions with black men have been with those portrayed poorly on television.

Although recently there have been more positive portrayals of black men on TV, there are still very few to choose from. The ones that do exist are largely relegated to supporting roles and out-of-the-way hours. Having a black man behind the lovable Elmo could spark some serious dialogue that helps change people’s views.

For record, Sesame Street was one of the first TV shows to depict an inclusive, racially diverse neighborhood. James Earl Jones was the first celebrity guest on the show and Ray Charles was one of the first artist to come in and sing the alphabet. It was so radical for its time that Mississippi briefly banned it in 1970.