film

Never Meet Your Heroes, Unless Your Heroes are Muppets.

Never Meet Your Heroes, Unless Your Heroes are Muppets.
On Wednesday I wrote my review of Being Elmo.  If you haven’t read it, you can click here to do so.  If you have a chance to go see this film, please do.  It is not at all what you are expecting from a film about Elmo.  And if you have a kid who is passionate about a hobby, even one who isn’t into Elmo,  it may very well change their life.
As delightful as the movie was,  getting a chance to meet the people involved was even more so.  Our first introduction to the film-making team came when we left our seats before the screening to grab some popcorn.  A young girl (probably about 12 years old) pointed at Kit and said “Mom, look at her dress!”  The next thing I knew Kitty was posing for a picture.  The iPhone photog lady said “I just have to send this to Kevin!”  At that point I realized I should probably ask  who this woman I was allowing to take pictures of Kitty in the baggy Sesame Street dress that her grandmother made her was.  “I’m Connie” she said “I’m the director”.  
The excitement coming from this woman was radiating.  She seemed so thrilled to be there and so excited that happy families were in the house to see her movie.  She then asked Kit her age and told me “This movie is for kids who are a bit older, if you have to take her out because she gets bored please don’t feel bad!”.   I shook her hand and gave her my card.  We found our way back to our seats.  It was only as we were sitting down and I relayed my story to Super-Dad that I realized that the “Kevin” she had mentioned was Kevin Clash.  “Oh my God,” I said “I think she’s sending a picture of Kitty to Elmo!”.   Kitty had already figured this out (we are such Sesame Street nerds in our house that she knows all about Elmo’s “Friend” Kevin) and was babbling to herself that she hoped that Mr. Kevin liked the dress that her Grandma had made her.
After an introduction from the festival’s Educational Director Dustin Kaspar, Constance Marks came to the front of the auditorium and told everyone that a very special guest was on his way from the airport. She explained that he (our nameless special guest) had been ill with food poisoning and had caught a flight that morning. She mentioned that she had never given this guest flowers, even after years of working with him, but that his hopping on a flight to come meet us deserved just such a gesture.   The audience gasped upon the realization that Kevin Clash would be joining us and I heard one young voice near the center of the auditorium ask his parent the question we all were thinking: “Is Elmo coming”?
Dustin Kaspar, Constance Marks, Marks’ daughter Sophia, James Miller & Kevin Clash
After the screening no one so much as moved. Dustin Kaspar came back up to the front and introduced  Constance once again who was this time  with her daughter Sophia, the young girl that had pointed out Kitty’s dress in the lobby.  Together they introduced James Miller, who is the film’s Cinematographer and Co-Producer and Marks’ husband.  They revealed that the inspiration for the film came after Miller, who was a camera operator on Sesame Street, brought home a story book for Sophia that Clash had contributed to. After another moment of banter Constance introduced Kevin Clash who came in through a side door to applause and a standing ovation.
Let me tell you, this guy has presence.  His enthusiasm is palpable.  It sounds cheesy but the man embodies love and joy.  You can feel it.  From the documentary we learned that he is the type of person who has always put his whole self into his goals and dreams and when he took on Elmo, a creature meant to embody “love, hugs and kisses” he put his whole self into that as well, and that is what comes through when he speaks. 
He answered a few questions, but was keenly aware of all of the littles in the audience.  When they started to get agitated (I have to interject here that Kitty was ignoring everything anyone said and had her eyes transfixed on the nondescript black leather duffel bag set nonchalantly behind Kevin.  She knew who was in there) Kevin stopped what he was doing and acknowledged the kids.  “Some of the kids are getting a little antsy I see.  We’re going to do a little meet-and-greet, but only with the littlest ones. Elmo and I will meet everyone else outside later”.  This was the moment we had been waiting for and Elmo was brought out to thunderous applause.  
In the documentary Kevin’s mom states “Kevin comes alive through Elmo” and seeing Kevin after he becomes Elmo, I can tell you that this is a true statement.  He is relatively soft-spoken and quiet, but almost seems as if he’s going  to burst.  It seems that he’s more comfortable with Elmo than he is with Kevin.  As if all the joy, all the love, all the humor that Kevin has to dull down so as not to seem like a crazy person is able to all spill out through Elmo.
When you meet Elmo, you are meeting Elmo.  Elmo starts talking and you forget Kevin is even there. Elmo isn’t a puppet, he isn’t a prop, he isn’t a doll.  He is a real live being.  I was convinced that when interacting with Elmo the kids would be distracted by the large man behind him (Clash isn’t a ventriloquist; his mouth is clearly moving when he’s voicing Elmo).  That wasn’t the case, even with the adults.  Elmo is a force to be reckoned with.  When the little monster spoke the audience sat rapt.  If you look in the background of the pictures I posted in this article, you can see perfectly sane adults smiling like little kids on Christmas morning.
Elmo comments on Kitty’s dress.
Elmo walked up (see, he didn’t really walk up, Kevin walked up with Elmo in his hands, but that’s not how I remember it) to a toddler whose mom had taken him out of the theater when he became restless.  “You should be asleep.  Give Elmo a hug!”  The toddler gleefully hugged Elmo.  He talked to some of the other kids in the audience and then he got to Kitty, who had been surprisingly patient.  Elmo told told Kitty “Elmo heard about you! Elmo likes your dress!” Kitty pointed to one of the little Elmos on the print “It has YOU on it!” she cheered.
“No, that’s not Elmo, that’s Cookie Monster!” he teased.
“No, it’s you, Elmo!”
“No, that’s Cookie Monster, you’re silly!”.   Elmo then noticed that Kitty had scribbled all over her legs earlier that morning.  “You shouldn’t draw on yourself, sometimes it doesn’t come off!!”.  He treated every preschooler in the audience as if they were the only person in the room.  Elmo loves them, and they knew it. 
Kevin put Elmo back in the bag (while Elmo jokingly called out for help) and continued to answer questions.
After the screening the crowd emptied out into a beautiful sunny day (most likely brought with Elmo from Sesame Street as it was the first nice day in Seattle all year) and stood in a respectful circle around Kevin and Elmo. I have never seen a more well behaved group of people in public.  Kevin managed that crowd like a pro, arranging groups for pictures and greeting each child.  Kevin never seemed bored, tired or annoyed.  Kitty was able to get the Elmo hug she was so desperate for.  We stuck around for about another hour, watching a quipping Elmo interact with the audience.  We saw a man covered in Muppet tattoos and a puppeteer who gave the first puppet she ever made to Kevin.  We watched child after child get a hug from Elmo and countless adults who no doubt have new Facebook profile pictures. 
Could we look any more thrilled to be there?
As we were getting ready to leave I realized that I hadn’t gotten to meet Elmo myself.   I handed Super-Dad my camera and stood and waited my turn.  Seeing her opportunity to have another moment with Elmo, Kitty tried to photobomb my picture.  “Hey!  It’s Elmo’s friend!!” Elmo declared!  I scooped Kitty up and while James Miller snapped our photo Elmo took the opportunity to tease Kitty some more about her dress.  It was magical.
So thank you, Constance Marks for finding the inspiration and medium to bring this story to us. Your enthusiasm for your project is contagious.  I hope that many, many people get  the opportunity to see the amazing story you have crafted.
Thank you, Kevin Clash for bringing to life one of the most beloved characters in the world.  I have never felt as much love in one place as I did at Seattle Center that Sunday morning.  We all need to feel loved, we all feel like we need to have a friend and when we’re in the presence of you and Elmo, we do.

Review of “Being Elmo: A Puppeteers Journey”

Review of “Being Elmo: A Puppeteers Journey”


Last Sunday Kitty, Super-Dad and I were lucky enough to attend a screening of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey as part of the Seattle International Film Festival’s Film4Families series. Being Elmo is a documentary about the life of Kevin Clash, current Head-Muppet-Dude over at Sesame Street and performer of everyone’s favorite furry four year old, Elmo.  
Clash’s story is told starting with his upbringing in a working class town on the outskirts of Baltimore.  He started making puppets at age nine and with the support of his loving parents (seeing his mother and father talk about him with such delight is one of the highlights of the film), was doing two local television shows before he graduated high school.
After an introduction from his mentor – Muppet builder Kermit Love – Clash started working for Jim Henson on Henson’s film Labyrinth .  Labyrinth was my favorite movie as a kid and learning that Clash worked the Firey who popped his eyeballs out, a scene which creeped me out, opened my eyes to breadth of his work. Elmo may have been a bit after my time, but I had been watching Kevin Clash puppeteer for my entire childhood.  
After Labyrinth he moved on to Sesame Street where he performed Hoots the Owl before taking over Elmo from Richard Hunt who was frustrated with the Muppet that he performed as a gravelly voiced Neanderthal.  Taking a cue from Frank Oz who had told him that he needed to find the “one thing” to focus on with each Muppet character (as examples Oz told Clash that he performed Fozzie Bear as an old vaudevillian and Miss Piggy as a trucker who wanted to be woman)  Clash decided that Elmo would represent “love, hugs and kisses”.  It was this trait that made Elmo so popular with preschoolers.  
 
Some of the most touching moments in film come as Clash discusses his role as a father to his daughter Shannon, when Clash talks about being made fun of for “playing with dolls”, and when we see Clash mentoring a promising 8 year-old puppeteer named Tau Bennett.  Be warned that the movie does touch on some sad moments.  The death and memorial of Jim Henson are visited.  Dying children ask to meet Elmo as their final wish.  One such visit is shown, and I just about lost it when the sick child’s dad thanked Clash with tears in his eyes.  Despite these two sad but important moments, the movie was joyous, with the audience smiling almost non-stop.  It was a celebration of not only the life of Clash but of Elmo, of puppeteering, of family and of the unbounded imagination of children. 
This film would especially resonate with children who have hobbies that they are passionate about.  Clash touches on overcoming the teasing of his peers and how he decided to pursue his dream no matter what anyone thought. What I really took away from it was that with hard work and the support of your parents any child really can achieve their dreams.  The older kids in attendance seemed to leave the theater truly inspired.
Kitty is still rocking her Being Elmo swag days later.
Even though Kitty happily sat through the film, I’d recommend it for children who are a little older.  At four years old she was a little over excited and would yell “ELMO!” whenever the red monster appeared on screen, but otherwise she sat transfixed at the story of Kevin Clash.  Be forewarned that if your child is blissfully unaware that Elmo is a puppet behind the scenes footage may spoil that magic. At just over an hour, the film is the perfect length for kids.  
Both before and after the film we had the opportunity to speak with both Clash and Constance Marks, the director who so skillfully wove together over six years of fresh interviews and film with vintage television clips, family photos and behind the scenes footage.  Marks had her daughter with her, and I can’t help but think that young Sophia had some input as the film was entertaining for all ages.  
Make sure that you check out Being Elmo when it goes into limited release throughout the country later this year. No one in the family will be disappointed.
I will write more about the meet and greet tomorrow.