Whether you're a toddler watching Sesame Street for the first time or an adult antsy with nostalgic anticipation for the upcoming Muppet Movie, it's often easy to forget that there's a human being controlling the franchise's beloved characters. One such puppeteer, Kevin Clash, is the subject of the new documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey. The film was released in theaters this weekend after winning rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival this winter. Here are five of the film's most charming revelations about Elmo and the 6-foot-tall, husky-voiced black man who gives life to him:
1. It's not always easy being Elmo
Clash was just 9 years old when Sesame Street debuted in 1969. The young boy instantly became obsessed with puppetry and Sesame Street creator Jim Henson. But being a young puppet enthusiast had its downside. "Classmates mocked him for playing with dolls and accused him of bringing them into his bed at night," says Betsy Morais at The Atlantic. Soon after high school, Clash moved to New York to work as a puppeteer on shows like Captain Kangaroo. He first worked with Henson in 1986 on the film Labyrinth, and soon after, joined the "Muppet brigade on Sesame Street," says Peter Rainer at The Christian Science Monitor. Clash has been playing Elmo for 25 years, during which he has fathered a child, gotten divorced, become Sesame Street's Muppet Captain, and written an autobiography.
2. Elmo originally had a "caveman persona"
Before Clash took over, Elmo was performed by Muppeteer Richard Hunt, who voiced the character with "a low-pitched gruffness that, heard on its own, might be imagined as the voice of a lifelong smoker," says Morais. Under Hunt's control, Elmo spoke with "a caveman-like syntactical simplicity": "Me find rhyme for boys… rhyme for boys is noise!" Apparently, Hunt grew frustrated with the character, and tossed it in Clash's lap, challenging him to see "what he could get out of it."
3. The secret of Elmo's success? Hugs.
Clash spent that summer at his parents' home working on a new persona for Elmo, when it dawned on him: "I knew that Elmo should represent love. Just kissing and hugging." He knew for sure that he had tapped into something that was working — a fully re-imagined character with a high-pitched voice and open heart — during an early sketch in which Elmo repeatedly gave goodbye hugs to another character. A crew member laughed. "Once I heard those laughs, I was like, Okay, there's something here," Clash says.
4. Celebrities adore Elmo
In his 25 years as Elmo, Clash has rubbed elbows with everyone from Kofi Annan and Michelle Obama to Katy Perry and Jimmy Fallon. "I love seeing celebrities on Sesame Street because these people who grew up watching the show turn into 5-year-olds," he says. Tracy Chapman broke into tears, he says, while filming a song with the Muppets, while Ricky Gervais apparently wants to develop a new project in which he would star alongside Elmo.
5. Clash wants to be Elmo for another 25 years
Don't expect Clash, who's 51 years old, to stop being Elmo just because he's reached his 25-year anniversary. The show evolves with what's happening in the world, he says, "so there's always something new to write about that can incorporate the character in what's happening." Besides, he'd look like a chump. "Caroll Spinney is 77 years old and he's still performing Big Bird," Clash says. "So I hope I can last that long."