I’ve spent the last three days volunteering with the Full Frame Documentary Festival, one of the highlights of the Durham calendar and the largest documentary film festival in the world. I was assigned to the Artist Hospitality Team whose job it was to take the film makers and subjects of the documentaries to and from the airport. What I loved most about the gig was I had twenty-five or thirty minutes with these folks in the car to find out about their movies and to brag a bit on my fair city. I met some wonderful people who had worked hard to get their stories to the screen.
The thing they all had most in common was that their stories took years to tell. Often they had followed their subjects for four or five years, not to mention the time and effort it took to actually get the film funded and produced. The highlight of my weekend was my last run of the morning when I picked up Elmo from the airport.
Kevin Clash is the puppeteer who is the subject of the documentary Being Elmo that showed here this week. I took one of the film’s producers out to the airport to pick up Kevin so he could be here for the screening this afternoon. When I picked up his luggage, he pointed to one small bag and said, “Don’t let that one get crushed; it’s Elmo.” Having been a serious Muppet fan for many years, I was very careful with the luggage and quite excited to be the one driving them all back to town.
This afternoon, I got to see the movie.
When Kevin was nine years old, he saw Sesame Street and the Muppets and was so captured by them that he started making puppets of his own. He then began doing puppet shows in his yard, which led to someone in Baltimore discovering him and bring him to a local TV kids show, which led him to be discovered by Captain Kangaroo and then Jim Henson. When he joined Sesame Street, Kevin didn’t have a set character that he played with any regularity. Elmo had only a small part on the show and the puppeteer who was doing him was frustrated with what he was doing. One day, he tossed the puppet to Kevin and said, “Do whatever you want with this one.”
And Elmo, as we know him, was born.
When Kevin talked about how he developed the character of the little red puppet, he said he began to study the other successful characters on Sesame Street and realized that each one had a defining characteristic. The more he thought about Elmo, he realized what defined Elmo was he loved everyone. From that realization, Kevin brought the Elmo we know into being, who is one who loves better than he does anything else. “Elmo loves you,” the little red guy said over and over, and that unabashed, unfiltered love was the driving force of the movie.
I could feel the tears running down my cheeks as I watched people of all ages fall into the arms of the little red ragamuffin or break into smiles when he laughed. What Elmo understands is when we share love from the core of who we are we create space for all of us to teach and learn and pray. I watched Elmo and I wondered about my own defining characteristic, about what animates my life and my faith.
After the movie, I met Ginger to go to a wedding reception for a couple whom Ginger married while I was watching Elmo. The groom was English and the bride from Durham. They are living in England and got married here in her home church and town. As their friends and family talked about them, what became clear was they, too, were defined by the way they loved both one another and those around them. The evening was one of pure celebration.
From the reception, we headed to Watts Grocery where we met Jay and Julie, two of our intentional family, and we ate and drank and laughed and talked as we have done more evenings than I can count. As we laughed, I thought of Elmo’s giggle as he hugged the kids of all ages that gathered around him after the screening was over, of Kevin Clash as he called an eight-year old girl to the front who makes her own puppets and whom he is mentoring as others did for him. I looked at Ginger, to whom I will have been married twenty-one years this coming Thursday and I thought, much like Elmo we all come to life when our love is what defines us.