Elmo's at the cineplex and I'm tickled!

Watch out, Margaret Thatcher. Move over, J. Edgar. Scoot over to the nearest subway grating, Marilyn Monroe. Elmo is back to claim his box office throne, as you recently heard from our very own cuddly Annie J. Howell.

It’s all thanks to Kevin Clash, the Baltimore-born man with a knack for sticking his hand up cloth creatures and making them sing, laugh, cry, and annoy in the most adorable ways. Most specifically, he’s known for doing Elmo the red monster from Sesame Street, and now they’re both stars of a film guaranteed a nomination for Furriest Documentary.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is the sweet Constance Marks-directed doc which charts Clash’s progression from Disney World-obsessed youth to big-time puppetmaster adored by Muppet creator Jim Henson and millions of doe-eyed toddlers.

We learn that Kevin was a wizard even as a kid, when he sneakily made a puppet out of dad’s coat, figuring out just how to move that thing around while supplying the appropriate character voice, mannerisms, and comic asides. Jump ahead and Clash has made a career out of manipulating Elmo in genius ways as any child within miles invariably melts into a puddle of beaming delight, clearly having no use at all for Ritalin.

Of course the height of Elmo mania came with the 1996 introduction of the Tickle Me Elmo doll, which shook and laughed uproariously when squeezed, though Clash was sure the toy would never make it. (He felt the “Me” sounded superfluous and it should have just been called “Tickle Elmo”!) But as Rosie O’Donnell notes in the doc, the vibrating doll was such an instant smash that right after she played with it on her talk show, producer Aaron Spelling was on the phone pantingly asking how he could bag two of them. “I felt like a crack dealer,” jokes Rosie.

Clash comes off like a fun dealer—a determined professional who sometimes finds himself living a little too strenuously through Elmo’s gleeful antics. When his daughter Shannon was born in 1993, Clash’s immediate urge was to work her mouth and legs like a puppet, which he was soundly urged by his wife to cease doing. Later on, he spent long stretches on the road entertaining kids with Elmo, wishing he was with his growing daughter instead–but at least she ended up getting some major payback. At her Sweet 16 party, Shannon was presented with a video of big-name Sesame Street guest stars wishing her a happy birthday, climaxing with a closeup of Elmo himself doing the same. That last bit obviously made two generations of Clashes very happy.

By the way, enjoy Elmo now as this film platforms because he won’t appear in the imminent The Muppets. “Too expensive!” swear the producers.