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Tonight, most PBS stations will premiere a documentary about the remarkable rise of Kevin Clash – the African American man who voices a certain iconic red Muppet from Sesame Street.

“Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” a presentation of PBS’ Independent Lens (check local listings) follows Clash from his roots in working-class Baltimore during the ’70s, through his obsession with Jim Henson’s Muppetry and his eventual meeting with Kermit Love, one of Henson’s key puppet creators. That fateful meeting, as the documentary shows, would set him on the course to becoming Elmo’s voice and puppeteer.

Even more moving than the depiction of his career path is the unwavering support of Clash’s parents, who are revealed to have cheered on his imagination and supported his dream – even as little Kevin was being teased by the neighborhood kids for his puppet fixation.

“You know, classmates the guys were saying, yeah, you sleep with your puppets and all of this stuff,” Clash told us. “The neighbors would say, ‘Gladys, why you let that kid sit in the house and do that?’ And my mom said, ‘Listen, he’s enjoying what he’s doing. He’s not hurting anybody. He’s creating.’ And so my mom and dad were very, very supportive.

“It wasn’t until I started doing variety shows in school where I had this character called Bar T, who was a close friend of mine. A lot of my puppets that I built when I was young were around friends of mine. And there’s a really cool friend of mine called Tony Bar T. I based this puppet on him, who just went off on everybody. And so I got back that way. You know, I would do variety shows and Bar T was the host. So those same guys that tried to heckle me, I could get them back with Bar T, and it worked. I’m still alive.

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