U is for… uncertain times. What now for Elmo?
Puppeteer behind Sesame Street's most widely loved character resigns over alleged relationships with teenagers
In the award-winning documentary Being Elmo, a colleague of Kevin Clash, the human alter ego of Sesame Street’s pre-eminent furry, red monster, Elmo, declares: “When a puppet is good and true, and meaningful, it’s the soul of the puppeteer that you’re seeing.”
The makers of America’s best-known and most influential children’s-television show were yesterday hoping those comments aren’t taken too literally after Mr Clash, who has been on the company’s payroll for almost three decades, announced his resignation amid a widening gay-sex scandal.
“Personal matters have diverted attention away from the important work Sesame Street is doing and I cannot allow it to go any longer,” read a statement from Mr Clash, 52, who has won 24 Emmy awards over the years. “I am deeply sorry to be leaving and am looking forward to resolving these personal matters privately.”
The development came amid allegations that the puppeteer had conducted at least two sexual relationships with teenage boys. On Tuesday, one of the alleged victims, Cecil Singleton, filed a lawsuit in New York claiming the actor had engaged in “sexual behaviour” with him when he was just 15 years old. He is seeking $5m in damages.
A day earlier, Sheldon Stevens, a male model, claimed to have been “pressurised” into accepting a $125,000 payoff to retract a previous public allegation that he had slept with Mr Clash at the age of 16. At the time, the age of gay consent in New York, where they had supposedly conducted a relationship after meeting online, was 17.
Whether there is substance to both men’s claims remains to be seen. Mr Clash has not yet commented on his dealings with Mr Singleton, but maintains that he had an “adult, consensual relationship” with Mr Stevens, whom he originally met on the internet.
Sources close to the puppeteer say that both of the men’s allegations must be viewed through the prism of huge potential compensation awards. A “thorough investigation” by the Sesame Workshop, which produces the show, has found no evidence of illegality, though Mr Clash was found to have “violated company policy regarding internet usage”.
Whatever now transpires, it’s a sad moment for Elmo, whose giggly persona was essentially invented by Mr Clash in the early 1980s, and who has since become Sesame Street’s most widely loved character, spawning endless cuddly toys. Analysts believe that, in recent years, he accounted for $50m a year in sales for Hasbro, which has a lucrative endorsement deal with the television show.
Mr Clash, who is divorced and has a teenage daughter, will meanwhile continue to appear in Sesame Street for several months, because future episodes of the show have been pre-recorded. After that, the role of Elmo will be handed to an understudy.
“Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding Kevin’s personal life has become a distraction that none of us want, and he has concluded that he can no longer be effective in his job and has resigned from Sesame Street,” read a statement from the show, which boasts 1.2 million daily viewers in the US alone. “This is a sad day for Sesame Street.”
Major milestones: Life on the street
* In the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney pledged to eliminate public funding for Sesame Street’s broadcaster, PBS. “I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for,” he said.
* Debate has long raged over the sexuality of Bert and Ernie. Last year, the show issued a statement describing them as “best friends”.
* Katy Perry’s 2010 appearance on the show sparked an outcry from “family-values” campaigners, who claimed her dress revealed too much cleavage.
* Amid concern over child obesity, Cookie Monster was forced to “broaden his eating habits” in 2005. In addition to giving tips about healthy eating, the puppet changed his signature song from “C is for Cookie” to “A Cookie is a Sometimes Food”.
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