One of the best things about the Off Screen program at the Sundance Film Festival is that you never know what might happen when some new combination of people get together and start talking. This is true of the Cinema Cafe series, where the casual setting creates all sort of moments of unexpected insight and fun. This was especially true for your humble correspondent on Tuesday morning, when I found myself sharing a stage with Kevin Clash, puppeteer and subject of Festival documentary Being Elmo, and Phil Shane, co-director of the same. A certain furry, red monster made an appearance as well, but we'll get to that.
Full disclosure here: I am an unabashed admirer of all things Henson and Henson-inspired, not to mention a product of much Sesame Street viewing. So while I posed for pictures with Elmo and Clash, I could only imagine what the 5-year-old version of myself would have been thinking. Certainly the 30-year-old version of myself was bursting at the seams with pretty much pure joy. But I had a job to do and once we started the talk, Clash's passion and Shane's insight helped put my butterflies to rest. (And from my perspective on stage it appeared that much of the audience, which included several little kids practically vibrating with anticipation, was right with me in terms of being overwhelmed with excitement.)
The conversation itself revealed that Clash is as delightful and inspiring as the film shows him to be. Shane opined that Clash's life is interesting enough to fill “a thousand” films. And he was proved right when Clash proceeded to expand upon several stories from film and offer up many more that weren't included. One of the audience's favorite involved Kevin being spotted by some flight attendants on a plane and subsequently delivering the 'please fasten your seatbelt' spiel as Elmo. He also spoke movingly about he and his fellow puppeteers' extensive work with kids in need. One of the toughest assignments recently, according to Clash, was visiting with children displaced by Hurricane Katrina who had “seen things kids that small shouldn't see.”
Photo Credit: Calvin Knight
As we wound down, Elmo emerged from a black valise and the kids in the room came alive. Clash and his 'little monster' spent time with all of them, posing for pictures, offering barrages of furry kisses and generally pushing the level of delight in the room to heretofore unimaginable levels. Truly, as Shane noted earlier, Elmo is “this generation's Mickey Mouse.”