October 26, 2011

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Editor's note: WVIA will air this event on Monday, Dec. 12, at 7 p.m.

By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa.— Kevin Clash took his place in the red chair on the stage at Bucknell University Tuesday night, laying a wide, black gym bag by his side. He patiently answered questions about his rise as a puppeteer, from the day he converted his dad's fuzzy winter coat lining into a monkey puppet to his work with Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan, Muppets creator Jim Henson and finally "Sesame Street."

Then, it was time for some huggy and kissy time.

Clash pulled the furry red monster from the gym bag and took on the role that's become an international sensation. He became Elmo.  

"Hi everybody," Clash said in that unmistakable high, squeaky voice. "So good to see you."

The audience at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts erupted in applause. Clash then invited children in the front row to hug and kiss Elmo, the character he has brought to life for nearly 30 years on "Sesame Street," and such specials as "Elmopalooza," "CinderElmo" and "Elmo's World."

"I know Elmo very, very well," he told Bucknell's Margot Vigeant, the associate dean of engineering and Elmo enthusiast who interviewed Clash on stage. "I can ad lib with him, because I know his character very well."

The senior puppet coordinator and Muppet captain for "Sesame Street" spoke as part of the Bucknell Forum "Creativity: Beyond the Box" speaker series, which features individuals from a range of fields who exemplify creativity as practitioners and can provide insightful commentary or interactive experiences on being creative. Children and adults lined up to ask questions of both Clash and Elmo. The most popular request was for a hug or a kiss from Elmo, who always obliged.

Childhood dream
Clash said that, growing up, he sketched out puppet designs, and he and his mom shopped for materials. His mother initially sewed the puppets, but she later taught Clash how to use the sewing machine when she no longer could handle the demand.

As a teenager, Clash volunteered for community groups in his hometown of Baltimore, which led to a job on a local children's television show, "Professor Kool."

By the early 1980s, Clash was appearing regularly on CBS's "Captain Kangaroo," and he had come to the attention of Muppet designer Kermit Love. In 1984, Kevin joined "Sesame Street," becoming a full-time puppeteer working where he always imagined he would be - alongside Jim Henson. He began performing Elmo in 1985.

Clash doesn't make his puppets anymore, but he still creates voices and characters for them. In the case of Elmo, he took over the role from a veteran puppeteer who was not feeling inspired about the role.

Clash explained how the Elmo puppet has evolved over the years. The original had an unbendable hand and no legs.

"He was very, very simple puppet," Clash said, pulling out the latest version. "His eyes still are like a piece of wood with a bar between them." With the flex of his hand inside the puppet, Clash demonstrated expressions such as confusion, sadness, anger or bewilderment on Elmo's face.

"The puppet wasn't built for that," he said. "Sometimes as puppeteers we find ways to give the puppet the expressions we want, picking up on different things maybe we think they are doing."

Clash now works with nine versions of Elmo, including one that is radio-controlled and on a tricycle, one that dances, and one that kicks his legs,

De Niro among his favorite guest stars
Speaking for Elmo, Clash said his closest puppet friend is Grover. One of his favorite guest stars on "Sesame Street" was Robert De Niro, who clearly was "out of his element" at first. Clash noted, however, that Elmo brings out the child in adults and children alike, including Clash.

"We all still have that childhood character," he said. "If you bring it out, it's up to you...With the celebrities on the show, you can see them all turn into a -year-old again. They see Oscar or Mr. Hooper's store and it brings back all those memories. I'm lucky that I get to do this for a living."

Clash recalled how Henson used to say, "The voice is secondary to the character" in puppetry.

"We're not voice actors. We're performers," he said.

A documentary of Clash's journey to becoming a puppeteer, "Being Elmo," was released last week at select theaters and also shown at Bucknell. Clash said he agreed to be the subject of a documentary film in part to promote the world of puppetry, which often is eclipsed by high-tech animation. In "Being Elmo," Clash said the feisty and loving Elmo is based on attributes of his mom and dad.

Audience meet-and-greet
Earlier in the day, Clash signed autographs and met fans at Barnes & Noble at Bucknell University in downtown Lewisburg. After the evening event at the Weis Center, fans lined up for a meet-and-greet and photo opportunities with Clash and Elmo.

Sophomore Michelle Hickey, an anthropology-cultural history major and music minor from Oradell, N.J., said she wanted to meet Elmo partly for childhood nostalgia and for her interest in the arts.

"I was really inspired he did something so unusual from a young age and stuck with it," she said.

Junior Eric Harris, a civil engineering major from Green River, Wyo., said he and his sister grew up as avid fans of Sesame Street.

"I enjoyed the story about how creativity was so much part of his life," Harris said.

WVIA Airdates
The event will be broadcast on WVIA-TV on Thursday, Nov. 3 at 8 p.m. Additional airdates are Saturday, Nov. 12 at 9 p.m., Monday, Nov. 21 at 7 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 27 at 3 p.m., Thursday, Dec 1 at 9 p.m. and Monday, Dec 12 at 7 p.m.

The Bucknell Forum
The "Creativity: Beyond the Box" Bucknell Forum series began in fall 2009 and continues through spring 2012. On Monday, Nov. 7, an alumni panel will discuss "Creativity in Hollywood, Amusement Parks, Video Games, and Mission-critical Technologies. Acclaimed recording artist, performer and philanthropist John Legend, who has won nine Grammy awards and was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people, will speak and perform Tuesday, Jan. 24.

The "Creativity: Beyond the Box" series task force comprises faculty members Carmen Gillespie, Beth Capaldi Evans, Paula Davis, Joe Tranquillo, Margot Vigeant and Zhiqun Zhu; students Michael Davis, Class of '13, and Lindsay Machen, Class of '11; and administrators Kari Conrad, Rob Springall and Pete Mackey, chair.

Since 2007, the Bucknell Forum speakers series has featured nationally renowned leaders, scholars and commentators who have examined various issues from multi-disciplinary perspectives and a diversity of viewpoints.

Contact: Division of Communications