The Tragedy Of The Elmo Puppeteer

A second man has come forward to accuse Kevin Clash of sex with a minor, and Clash has resigned from Sesame Street. The scandal highlights the tricky line that the closeted famous walk.

Elmo and puppeteer Kevin Clash in 2011. Victoria Will, file / AP

Nov. 20 update: Kevin Clash resigned on Tuesday from Sesame Street. TMZ reported that a second accuser named Cecil Singleton has filed a $5 million lawsuit against Clash in federal court in New York City alleging that he and Clash met in a gay phone chat when the accuser was 15. The lawsuit, which has been posted by The Smoking Gun, states, “Kevin Clash, the voice of Elmo, trolled gay telephone chat line rooms to meet and have sex with underage boys.”

Shortly after the TMZ news alert went out, Sesame Workshop issued a statement that Clash had resigned. “Sesame Workshop’s mission is to harness the educational power of media to help all children the world over reach their highest potential. Kevin Clash has helped us achieve that mission for 28 years, and none of us, especially Kevin, want anything to divert our attention from our focus on serving as a leading educational organization. Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding Kevin’s personal life has become a distraction that none of us wants, and he has concluded that he can no longer be effective in his job and has resigned from Sesame Street. This is a sad day for Sesame Street.

Representatives from Sesame Workshop would not grant any interviews on Tuesday. An email to Clash’s representative was not immediately returned. And a Facebook message to Sheldon Stephens, Clash’s first accuser who had recanted the allegation that Clash had sex with him when he was underage, but then took back his recanting, also has not responded.

Clash has won 21 Emmy awards. Beyond his role as the Elmo puppeteer, he was a hugely influential figure at Sesame Street and its offshoots. as a director and producer.

Nov. 13 update: The anonymous accuser of Kevin Clash has recanted his allegation that they had had a sexual relationship when the accuser was underage. Brian Stelter of The New York Times broke the news in a tweet. Clash issued a statement through his representative: “I am relieved that this painful allegation has been put to rest. I will not discuss it further.”

Sesame Workshop also issued a statement: “We are pleased that this matter has been brought to a close, and we are happy that Kevin can move on from this unfortunate episode.” When asked when or whether Clash will return to work, a Sesame Workshop source wrote, “We have no comment. This just happened!”

Trailer for Being Elmo.

“Pee-Wee Herman, Part 2”? “Don’t Tickle Me, Elmo’? Whatever the headline, it’s been a sad couple of days for fans of Kevin Clash, the longtime puppeteer behind the little, red, joyful Sesame Street character Elmo, who’s being accused of having sex with a 16-year-old boy (who is now 23). The scandal highlights the tricky line the closeted famous walk, particularly if they’re confronted by allegations of sexual impropriety. And now, Clash finds himself with few defenders — and few options.

Clash — who has been the Elmo character since 1984 and is the one who made the three-and-a-half-year-old monster Sesame Street’s biggest star — had a cult following for years, but he gained even more fans after the release of the touching 2011 documentary about his life, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. In that film, Clash opened up about his upbringing in a black suburb of Baltimore, his early obsession with Disney and puppets, and that he was teased in school for playing with dolls. But despite the personal nature of the documentary, Clash, who is now 52, did not come out as gay. On Monday, that changed, under the worst possible circumstances: “I am a gay man,” he said in a statement issued by his representative. “I have never been ashamed of this or tried to hide it, but felt it was a personal and private matter.” (His PR person said that Clash was not available for an interview.)

The allegations are, so far, unproven — but even amid the widening Petraeus mess, that hasn’t stopped the Clash headlines. [Update: Nor will they be, since the accuser has now recanted. See the top of the story.]

To recap: According to Sesame Workshop, the organization was approached months ago by a 23-year-old who claimed he had had a sexual relationship with Clash at age 16. (Age of consent laws vary by state; New York’s is 17.) Sesame Workshop’s statement describes its investigation as “thorough,” and that it found the underage accusation “unsubstantiated.” On Monday, TMZ broke the news of the allegation, and Clash did confirm that he’d had a relationship with the accuser, but after he was of legal age. Sesame Workshop announced that Clash will be taking a leave of absence: “Kevin insists that the allegation of underage conduct is false and defamatory and he is taking actions to protect his reputation,” read that part of the statement.

Regardless of the truth of the underage allegation, Clash is certainly in trouble. He is, after all, a star to children, and an employee of a company that educates and entertains tiny people. In the post-Sandusky era, the suggestion of an older authority figure having sex with a minor boy seems career-ending-ly damning — even though there’s been no suggestion of coercion or assault here. (The accuser’s attorney, Benjamin D. Andreozzi, did not return my call.)

A source at Sesame Workshop said on Monday, “Personally, it’s devastating. When you think of Kevin, it just breaks your heart.”

This source filled out details of the story. In June, an e-mail came in to the press department from the accuser, who said that when he was underage, he’d had a relationship with someone who was the voice of a famous puppet. The press people immediately turned the e-mail over to general counsel, who then contacted the accuser. “They met with the accuser not once, but two times,” said the source. Sesame Workshop did an internal investigation and also had outside counsel investigate, with both investigations combing through Clash’s e-mails. The source said, “Each and every time we asked the accuser, ‘Do you have any proof?’” None was ever produced, said this person.

Clash continued to deny that the accuser had been underage. According to the Sesame source, any circumstantial evidence the accuser produced was all disproved. The investigators continued to press him, and later the accuser’s attorney, saying, “We absolutely have to get to the bottom of this — do you have anything you can show us? Because Kevin swears.”

Was the accused seeking money? “Legally we’re not allowed to say that,” said the source. Since TMZ is known to pay money for stories, I asked the site’s representative about this one. She has not responded. TMZ has continued to be on the story; on Tuesday, it quoted from an e-mail exchange Clash had with the accuser in which Clash professed his love and wrote, “I’m sorry that I keep talking about sex with you, its [sic] driving me insane.” (The e-mails were from 2010, which makes the accuser in his early twenties at the time.) [Update: TMZ has posted the accuser’s recanting.

I asked Dan Bucatinsky, an actor, producer, screenwriter, and the author of Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?, a memoir about being a gay father, what he thinks about the Clash/Elmo conflagration. His response: “As a dad, I think teenagers should discover their sexualities and experiment with relationships with peers rather than grown adults who are inherently in positions of power and influence.” But, Bucatinsky wrote in an e-mail, “If it’s true they were two consenting adults, it’s really nobody’s business. So is this really about ‘Is it okay for someone who works on Sesame Street to be gay?’ The answer is yes.”

There is one sentence in the Sesame Workshop statement that seems to spell doom for Clash. That is: “Elmo is bigger than any one person and will continue to be an integral part of Sesame Street to engage, educate and inspire children around the world, as it has for 40 years.” There will certainly be plenty of parents who will be repelled by Clash’s age difference with the accuser, even if he wasn’t 16.

Kevin Mulhearn, one of the attorneys in the Poly Prep sexual abuse lawsuit, articulated that issue. “Assuming that their relationship was ‘consensual,’” he wrote in an e-mail, “Mr. Clash was more than 30 years older than his accuser, who had barely obtained the age of consent when their affair began. So, even if there was no legal issue re: the age of consent, that kind of gap makes me worry about a potential abuse of power or subordination of the younger man’s will.”

I tried to talk to some of Clash’s past supporters, such as former Sesame Street writer Nancy Sans, who has credited Clash with giving Elmo life. I e-mailed Fran Brill, the puppeteer who performs as Zoe, Elmo’s best friend, and Martin P. Robinson (Snuffleupagus and Slimey, Oscar’s pet worm). I haven’t heard back from them. I did reach Constance Marks, the Being Elmo director, who said, “You know what, Kate, I know nothing about this situation.” She referred me to Sesame Workshop.

And yet, the Sesame source said, “My hope is that Kevin’s name will be cleared.”

As we’ve seen from the Petraeus explosion, the first revelation often leads to many more. Perhaps these people were all busy, or just want to wait to see what happens. But it doesn’t bode well for Clash’s future in children’s television that the only person I could find who would defend him insisted on anonymity.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Nov. 13 to reflect that the accuser recanted his allegation. It was again updated on Nov. 20 when a second accuser materialized and Clash resigned.

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