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My Life As A Furry Red Monster

Order your copy of Kevin Clash's biography "My Life As A Furry Red Monster" for 35% off the regular price.
Cindy Chapman (September 5, 2006) - His furry red face is as recognizable as the Mona Lisa or the President; he is in fact such an icon in our society that it is hard to remember when Elmo wasn’t part of our culture. And while it is easy to think of Elmo as that perpetual three-year-old that lives on Sesame Street there is someone behind Elmo, or perhaps someone underneath Elmo.

The 224 page book “My Life as a Furry Red Monster” tells us all about that someone and how his life has been transformed by a little puppet named Elmo. For anyone who doesn’t have children, nieces or nephews let me relieve you by saying this book was not written by Elmo. Repeat, this book was not written by Elmo. No first person referrals or incessant yet contagious giggling, this book is about Kevin Clash, you know, that person “underneath” Elmo. With the help of Gary Brozek, Kevin shares his private thoughts, past glories and pitfalls all while telling us what he has learned from Elmo.

The subtitle explains the purpose of the book best, “What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love, and Laughing Out Loud.” I know what you are thinking, what can I, a long since pre-school graduate need to learn about life from Elmo? Well according to Kevin, quite a bit. Each chapter is defined by the lesson that Kevin has determined that he and the rest of us could learn from Elmo. From love to courage, to creativity and tolerance it seems that all of us could use a lesson from a three-year-old’s perspective.

Despite your opinion of Elmo (love him, hate him, or tolerate him) you have to admire his ability to rise to the top. And yet as Elmo continues to grow in the Sesame Street spotlight, Kevin remains on the sidelines. Like a parent, quietly observing his own child, Kevin is amazed at what Elmo is able to accomplish in the rough and tumble world that is the twenty-first century. Unlike Elmo who freely speaks his mind and demands constant attention, Kevin is only happy just to be a part of it.

From his humble beginnings, we learn about Kevin as a young child and how his parents influenced him to be something more than just an African American kid growing up in the city. They encouraged his somewhat bizarre habits of collecting fur, fabric and other odds and ends to build his one-of-a kind puppets. At a young age, Kevin had a natural talent for entertaining and yet he himself never sought the spotlight. Content with being the boy behind the curtain, or the boy who went off in his own direction, Kevin uses this time to develop a craft that would become his ultimate dream. A long time fan of puppetry and Sesame Street, Kevin shares with us how his mom actually gets him into the professional puppetry gig. And how his own tenacity brought him to New York City and then eventually to Sesame Street. The only things missing in this book are shared photographs of Kevin’s early childhood and puppets.

Similar to Jim Henson’s Ernie, Kevin is the antithesis to Elmo. Quiet, unassuming, content to observe he finds that by portraying the rambunctious three old is his own outlet for his “other” side. Despite Elmo’s dizzying popularity, Kevin is humble, and we read about these moments of humbleness when Kevin shares with us his first moment’s with his daughter, or the first time he saw a Tickle Me Elmo on the shelves of the toy store. Elmo may be the money maker for Sesame Street, but Kevin assures his readers that he is only one of many hands the helps to stir the pot.

This book gives us that little insight into what it is like to be a puppeteer of one of the most famous Muppets of all time. For those of you who are aspiring Muppeteers yourselves, you will especially enjoy this book. Pay careful attention because Kevin, as producer and puppeteer recruiter he has some wonderful pearls of wisdom for what he looks for in a potential co-worker. We get to learn some of who Kevin really is. Who and what has shaped him, who and what inspired him and most importantly what kind of a man he is today.

As each one of Elmo’s little life lessons unfold we learn a little more about Elmo, Kevin and perhaps a little more about ourselves. By reading this book we find out that there is more to Elmo than tickling, giggling, and his goldfish Dorothy. Elmo has layers of love, joy, creativity, tolerance, courage, friendship, cooperation, learning, and optimism. Kevin Clash understands this and now he finally has a voice to share it with the rest of us.

The following is an excerpt from part of the book's first chapter entitled "Love". Special thanks to Broadway Books for giving Muppet Central permission to reprint an excerpt from "My Life As A Furry Red Monster".

 

Love

 

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."

Kevin Clash on the set of Captain Kangaroo.

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.

 
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