When I tell folks what I do for a living ("What'dya mean you're Elmo? You're a forty-five-year-old six-foot African American male with a deep voice, get outta here"), after they regain their composure, they ask me to explain Elmo's popularity. Elmo is instantly recognizable in nearly every country in the world. He knows heads of state, A-list celebrities, world-class athletes, Oscar winners, Tony winners, Grammy winners, spelling-bee winners, and lots of babies. If Elmo had a cell phone, it would never stop ringing. Why is this little fur-and-foam bundle of energy such a phenomenon?
I have a one-word answer: love. Elmo connects with children and adults on the purest and most fundamental level, and that is the human desire to love and be loved. It's as simple as that.
Though I've said "Elmo loves you" thousands of times, maybe millions, the thrill remains because children crave hearing that they are loved. (So do most adults, even if they won't admit it.) And kids love to say it back--"I love you, too!"--and you know they mean it, no matter how many times they say it.
"I love you." Those are magic words--basic, simple, easy to say, but as adults we often forget their power. We often forget to say them. But Elmo reminds me on a daily basis that love is the foundation for a happy life. And before we can love each other, we have to learn to love ourselves.
Back home in Turner's Station, a blue-collar community located just east of downtown Baltimore, Maryland, there was plenty of love to go around. In fact, my mom had so much love to give that she shared it with all the neighbor kids, running a family-style daycare center out of our two-bedroom, one-bath home. My siblings--Georgie (the oldest, George Jr.), big sister Anita (we called her Ne-Ne), and little sister Pam--grew up in a kind of kid heaven, where children and love naturally intersected and were never in short supply.
Money, however, was. Officially, my hometown is called Turner Station, but we always referred to it as Turner's Station--just tradition among the locals, I guess. It's fitting that the name confusion exists, because there really are two towns in my mind--the Turner's Station of my youth and memory and the Turner Station of a harsher reality. My father worked hard as a flash welder operator at Raymond Metals to put a roof over our heads, and Mom's daycare work supplemented his income. But that said, I never, ever felt poor in that house, though there were days when all we had for dinner were mayonnaise sandwiches.
Our small brick ranch house on New Pittsburgh Avenue was an unremarkable structure, not much different (at least on the outside) from most others in the neighborhood. It had a side entry and a two-step cement stoop where the neighborhood men often sat smoking and chatting in the quiet of a summer's evening. A chain-link fence kept the constant flow of bicycle, tricycle, wagon, hopscotch, and jump-rope traffic off our small patch of lawn and out of the few geraniums, petunias, and four-o'clocks my mother tried to keep thriving in her front-yard garden.
If our property was remarkable in any way, it was because we had two sheds in the backyard instead of the usual one. My father was, and is, an inveterate pack rat. His excuse was that in addition to his day job, he brought in money by being a neighborhood handyman. So any scrap he could salvage from a demolition or remodeling job went into the bursting-at-the-seams shed.
"You can't believe what someone threw away today," he'd announce at dinner, recounting his latest find. Before long, like my dad, I started saving and salvaging my own scraps--old buttons, fabric, a worn-out fuzzy slipper, odd bits of plastic or Styrofoam, boxes--any materials that I could turn into the simple puppets I began building and fiddling with as a child.
Now, lest you start picturing a Sanford and Son type of junk lot--even though Dad was often told that he looked like Redd Foxx--you need to know that our house sat just a few hundred yards from the Chesapeake Bay. We had a huge backyard dominated by a willow tree, and beyond our lawn a field of tall fescue grass waved in the warm breezes off the water. Depending on the wind direction and tide, the air was filled with the sweet scent of the salty water or the fertile smell of the tacky mudflats we delighted stomping through in search of seashells. On the worst days, the chemical odors from the nearby Bethlehem Steel mill at Sparrows Point overpowered all.
We lived within a half hour ride of vibrant downtown Baltimore, yet our neighborhood was a bucolic mix of homes and vacant fields where we roamed and aired our young imaginations. Necessity remained the true mother of invention, however, and we kids weren't the only creative ones. I still remember one field where enterprising Mr. Shelton parked a school bus he had converted into a general store. Mom would send me to this mobile pit stop for a few necessities, saving her a trip to Miss Hill's grocery farther away on Wade Street.
My mom was the ultimate "working mother," before that phrase came into vogue. Not only was she busy raising my siblings and me, she had a house full of neighborhood kids in the daycare center she ran. As a result, growing up, my home was filled with the controlled (and sometimes uncontrolled) chaos that children bring. With the four of us there, plus the half dozen or so kids from the neighborhood Mom watched, all that energy exerted a magnetic pull on other toddlers and preteens in the neighborhood.
Our house was a place where many kids took their first staggering steps, where the smell of baby powder and dirty diapers dueled for dominance, and where each evening my mother leaned her hip wearily against the counter as she prepared dinner, while I sat at the table making art with assorted empty cereal and Kleenex boxes, colored paper, crayons, and Elmer's glue. I kept one eye on my creation-in-progress and the other on the paper towel roll, waiting for that last sheet to be torn off so I could pounce on the cardboard cylinder and claim it.
I undoubtedly inherited my "crafty" instincts from my parents, Gladys and George Clash. Mom sewed like a pro, and Dad loved to draw and make things, and they often got into the spirit of creating with us kids. Once, after a huge snowstorm, my parents helped us construct a massive snow fort--a squared-off igloo. Mom made a flag for us to fly using iron-on letters on red cloth. Though the snow melted, the name we gave to our winter playhouse stuck, and the red flag found a place in our living room. From that point forward my house was known as Fort McKids.
Between neighborhood children, my many relatives who lived nearby, the daycare kids and their parents constantly dropping by, our home life was structured mayhem. And as on Sesame Street, humor was a mainstay. I'm grateful for having grown up in what was basically "kid central," because it later made being on the set of Sesame Street feel like I was back with my family. With that many kids around, you can be sure that on any given day, the house was populated by at least one grouch and several monsters, and a cookie was certainly something to be devoured, not savored or shared.
Though our house was modest, my sense of home felt larger than our four walls. It extended into the multitude of other homes in which I felt welcome. As a kid, I loved the Sesame Street song, "People in Your Neighborhood," because it perfectly captured the connectedness I felt in mine. The homes of our neighbors, Mr. Bernard and his wife, Miss Rose, and Mr. Melvin and Miss Lee, as well as Miss Ada, Miss Marie, and Miss Eunice, were nearly as familiar as my own. I can still taste the crabs my father's friend Kakie (never Mr. Kakie, always just Kakie) shared with us.
No matter how much activity was going on in the house, I always carved out time to watch Sesame Street and other children's shows. My mother never used television as an electronic babysitter, but I'm like so many of my generation with a fierce devotion to the medium that came into our homes on a small screen and somehow enlarged our world beyond all measure.
Sesame Street first aired when I was ten years old, and as soon as I heard the sprightly opening bars of the theme song, I was entranced. I was one of those up-close sitters. I'd park myself a few inches from the RCA color television set we had. I was so close, I could feel the static electricity of the screen tugging at the peach fuzz on my face and smell the wonderful aroma of electrically heated dust coming from the vents of that lustrous wooden console. No matter how many times my mother yelled, "Kevin! Move back before you go blind!" I'd still feel myself powerfully drawn into that world, and the worn-out seats of my Lee jeans bore witness to the pull I was powerless to resist.
I was instantly taken with this new show, with these creatures called "Muppets"--Jim Henson's trademark way of combining "marionette" and "puppet"--and little did I know that I was already setting the course of my life to exchange my New Pittsburgh Avenue address for 123 Sesame Street. Love makes you do crazy things sometimes.
He may not look like it, but that Elmo's a love machine.
When parents tell me, "My child lives for Elmo," I tell them that Elmo lives because of their child's love for him. I don't just mean that Elmo is alive in their child's imagination, though that is certainly a part of it. That child and Elmo aren't just experiencing love; they're creating more of it to go around, and in doing so they make the world a better place.
It works like this: Elmo feeds off the love he receives from kids, from the adult characters on the show, and from his fellow Muppets. He doesn't just take that love in as a fuel and use it up. Instead, he drinks it in and gives it right back in spades. He's a kind of love-energy power station, and the more love he takes in, the more love he produces for the rest of the world. The more love he produces, the more love he receives, and the cycle completes itself over and over again. Talk about a renewable resource!
I first saw this powerful cycle in action shortly after Elmo debuted and was gaining in popularity in the mid-1980s, when I did an appearance with him at a school in the Bronx. A group of preschoolers were gathered in the library, all of them bundles of fidgeting energy with their legs swinging like metronomes. As soon as Elmo said, "Hello, everybody! Elmo loves you!" it was like a floodgate had opened, and Elmo and I were awash in a surge of little children. I could almost feel an electric charge in the room, as their shouts of "I love you, Elmo!" reverberated off the cinder-block walls. Elmo laughed and opened his arms wide and tried to scoop up all the love and hug it to his chest, all the while repeating "Elmo loves you, too."
That may have been the first time in my adult life when I finally comprehended the ancient notion that what you put out in the universe comes back to you. Since that day, I've learned to try to put as much Elmo and Kevin love out into the world as I can, knowing that it will have a very positive ripple effect. Elmo and the children taught me that one. Somewhere along the road to adulthood, we seem to forget this little secret about the power of love, but it's worth remembering.
When children tell Elmo that they love him, they all have different styles of expressing their emotion. Some of the more demonstrative kids throw their arms around his neck, snuggle their faces against his, and with an eyes-closed, sigh-heaving, hand-me-my-Tony-Award gesture that projects to the very last row of the theater's balcony, they proclaim their undying devotion to Elmo in prose as purple as Telly Monster. "Oh, Elmo, I love you more than chocolate ice cream! More than I love the new baby! Please come and live in my house forever!"
Older kids are a little more matter-of-fact, as if they've been married for twenty years and they're picking up their keys and their bag and heading out the door with an affectionate but perfunctory "Love you." Still others are more shy and reserved, like the bashful and nervous teen letting his or her feelings be known to their crush for the first time. I often wonder how these children will express their love as adults and how many of them will remain demonstrative and unembarrassed, or if they'll naturally pull back into more conservative styles as they grow older. It would be ridiculous if we all greeted each other the way the more enthusiastic kids greet Elmo--imagine how long it would take to get that first cup of coffee at the office with all the morning greetings in full swing!--but still, doesn't imagining a love-filled world like that put a smile on your face?
Children approach Elmo differently depending on their age, but they also are inevitably influenced by the kinds of physical demonstrations of affection they receive at home. Elmo wants to reach all kids, and sometimes he can be like that overly enthusiastic puppy who finds everything in the world so fresh and new and wonderful that he can't contain himself. Just as kids may squeal in delight when they first see a puppy and then retreat in leg-hugging, face-shielding fear when the puppy starts to jump on them, Elmo can evoke the same response. Over time, I've learned to think quickly on my feet, to gauge the kinds of responses I'm getting from a child and either tone down or amp up Elmo's enthusiasm level accordingly. I constantly have to remind myself that even though they've seen Elmo countless times on television, they're meeting him face-to-face for the very first time.
The funny thing is, no two kids are alike. I've seen the quiet ones respond with smiles and giggles that escalate to a full-on Elmo love attack--the eardrum-piercing, vibrating, arms-wide, hugging and squeezing and kissing frontal assault. Other shy kids need a little bit of time to warm up to Elmo and his "de-monster-ative" displays of affection. But in the end, they all come around.
If only we adults could just remember to let our hearts do the talking sometimes, like kids do. Back in December of 2001, we held the first and only MuppetFest in Santa Monica. This was a weekend event for the general public and for television industry insiders. Along with projecting clips of the shows on giant screens and discussing the history of the Muppets, Jim Henson's London Based Creature Shop (where they built puppets used in films such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and animatronic creatures like those in Babe) held seminars on the making and maintenance of the puppets, the use of computer-generated images in children's television, advances in electronics and radio-controlled puppetry, and a host of other topics. As performers, we didn't attend every seminar, but we did all gather for the question-and-answer session. We sat on stage at the Civic Auditorium, each of us with a puppet on our arms.
Now, this wasn't a gathering of kids; the audience was a collection of adults who grew up watching the show, a number of them dressed in full walk-around costumes of their favorite Muppet, and I noticed more than one super-size Elmo. These folks made me realize the connection between the words "fan" and "fanatic." (Okay, it was a little like a Trekkie convention.) Most of all, the stuff they knew--from behind-the-scenes trivia to highly technical details--blew me away. The questions ranged widely, and we talked about everything from diversity among the cast and characters and the future of the Muppets, to new directions the Sesame Street curriculum might take. It was great to have such an intelligent and passionate audience, and we tried to have fun with it all, but then something happened to put the whole thing into perspective and to remind us why we were up there in the first place.