Friday, July 27, 2007


During a recent family vacation in an island off the coast of Seattle, I spent a lot of time playing with my nephew, Tyler. Tyler is two years and 4 months old. He loves to greet every person who comes in the room, jump on his older brother, and look at picture books. He is full of passion for life. When I play with Tyler, I follow his lead as much as possible. One evening, I sat quietly with Tyler as he lined up crayons next to each other and drew circles of all colors and sizes. One morning at the beach, I held Tyler’s hand as he walked in and out of the water, looking at the waves, the light, the skim boarders at water’s edge. Once in a while, Tyler would let out a shriek of delight accompanied by a joyful leap. Mostly, though, he wanted just to walk and look. I stayed with him as he did that for about a half an hour.

I can think of few activities more rewarding or important than to follow a young person’s mind. It does take a conscious decision to not insert my idea of how things should go. There’s always a pull to worry about how a child is going to “turn out,” and direct him or her to activities that will (seemingly) ensure success in the future as a “productive” or “well adjusted” adult. But I have a hunch that if we adults spent more time following the creative minds and pursuits of young people, more humans would have lives that they are truly passionate about. Kevin Clash is the proof in the pudding.

Kevin Clash is the puppeteer behind Elmo, the lovable, furry red muppet who has won the hearts of millions on Sesame Street. I gathered information about Kevin by reading his book – My Life as a Furry Red Monster – and by meeting him in person at his Sesame Workshop office. Most inspiring was learning the details about a life of love and support from family, friends, neighbors, and mentors who backed Kevin’s passion for puppetry from the start. Kevin’s rich history as a producer and puppeteer shows that good things happen when adults pay close attention to and nurture the creative and artistic sensibilities of children.

Kevin’s Life in a Nutshell
Kevin grew up in a working class, African heritage suburb of Baltimore, Maryland with a mom, a dad, and three siblings. He spent countless childhood hours creating puppets and puppet shows, getting plenty of inspiration from television programs such as Captain Kangaroo, Good Times, and, of course, Sesame Street. During his younger years, Kevin performed shows for neighborhood folks, for audiences in the wider Baltimore area, then for local television programs.

Like other children who do something off the beaten path, Kevin got a dose of teasing and raised eyebrows. He also experienced the insidious messages of racism. Fortunately, the love and support he got from his family and community balanced out forces that may have otherwise swayed Kevin from his path. As Kevin says in his book, “Society was still sending a loud message that black children like us didn’t have much to aspire to, but that negative talk was drowned out by our parents, who taught us that our dreams were worthy simply because they were ours.”

Gladys and George Clash operated as a team to back their son’s passion. They kept Kevin well-stocked with art supplies and fabrics; took him to his first gigs as a performer; drove him to hobby shops; and connected Kevin to professionals who would help him along his career path. Kevin also has vivid memories of what each parent did individually to support him. George, a flash welder and neighborhood handyman, helped Kevin build puppet stages out of salvaged scrap wood. He also kept his cool when Kevin used his (George’s) furry church coat to fashion a puppet named Moandy, responding to the discovery of his cut-up coat with a firm yet kind: “Next time, ask.” Gladys, a home-based daycare worker, was a talented seamstress who taught Kevin to sew on her old Singer machine. She was also the one who helped Kevin land one of his first big breaks by connecting him with Kermit Love, a man who would become one of Kevin’s key mentors.

When Kevin was in high school, he saw Kermit Love featured on an episode of Call It Macaroni, a children’s television show. Kevin was blown away by the fact that an adult was making a successful living from his passion – designing costumes and puppets for everyone from George Balanchine’s dancers to Sesame Street’s Big Bird. Through perseverance, Gladys got in touch with Love who in turn invited Kevin to come to his workshop in New York City. Shortly after that visit, Kermit invited Kevin to be Cookie Monster’s puppeteer in the 1979 Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade.

In the 1980s, Kevin became a puppeteer for Sesame Street and also participated in a number of Jim Henson productions. In addition to winning the hearts of millions as Elmo on Sesame Street, Kevin has won multiple awards for his work as co-executive producer of Elmo’s World.

Kevin on Mentoring
In reflecting on the trajectory of his life, Kevin is clear that mentoring and other forms of support have been key to his success. He also recognizes that support can mean space and freedom and it can also mean the kind of tough-love guidance that keeps a person grounded. Kevin acknowledges that he has relied on others to keep him rooted in a life of integrity. Said Kevin during our chat at Sesame Workshop, “Stardom stinks if you don’t have people telling you the truth. You need people who teach you that there are rules to abide by if you want to keep being a success with family and with business.” Kevin fondly described several of the mentors who did help him grow as an artist through truth-telling; these folks include Stu Kerr, Kermit Love, and Jim Henson.

Stu Kerr, a television personality, was Kevin’s first mentor. When Stu saw Kevin’s puppetry at a local fair, he invited Kevin to perform in a television show called Caboose. Through Caboose, Kevin eventually landed a spot on Captain Kangaroo. Kevin credits Stu with teaching him about the importance of cooperation in working with other professionals, both from the creative and business aspect of things.

Speaking about costume and puppet designer Kermit Love, Kevin commented: “He took me under his wing like I was a grandson. He was so positive, guiding me in the right direction. When the time came to decide to go to college, he encouraged me to stay working with Jim Henson.”

And, finally, Kevin said of Jim Henson: “Jim was so approachable; there was no ego. Jim’s message was ‘Let’s have a good time and respect each other and give back.’ With Jim, you learned the craft by watching and by doing. It was intimidating to be the new kid on the set and Jim stuck with me.”

Kevin has been blessed with the sound guidance of these three and countless other guides. He also knows, particularly from his childhood days, that adults must step back enough to trust the rightness of what children love to do and want to pursue. On the topic of supporting young people in their journeys, Kevin says this in his book:

“You can teach your children all the basics and then some, and they will turn right around and use their knowledge in wonderful, powerful ways you can’t even imagine. That’s the beauty of learning. But it can be hard to resist pulling on the reins and, at some point, steering kids away from what they want to learn to what you think they need to know to be successful. […]

Dreams are fragile things, but when they’ve been bolstered by the support of parents and teachers, and reinforced with early success, they can withstand the skeptics and take flight. When I was a kid, my dad and I spent a lot of time together building things, and I can’t help but think of this metaphor: Kids are the architects of their own dreams. I know that I was.”