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Elmo’s young fans blissfully unaware
First, Big Bird became an unwitting player in a presidential debate that argued for clipping his wings.
Then came word that the man behind Elmo would take a leave of absence amid an allegation that he had had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy – an accusation that was withdrawn the next day.
The happy band of Muppets on "Sesame Street" has faced the sort of hot spotlight you might expect for the rowdies of "Jersey Shore." Too often, it seems, the show has confronted hairpin detours through the mean streets of politics and scandal.
But the show's producers can take solace in one simple fact: Their target audience remains blissfully unaware that, even on "Sesame Street," everything's not always A-OK. And despite the innate curiosity of children, there are many questions not being asked this week by Elmo's most devoted fans.
For instance, children won't be asking this question, even as their elders raise it: "What made someone accuse Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash of having sex with him when he was underage, then recant his accusation a day later?"
Elmo's youngest devotees instead would more likely wonder, "Who is Kevin Clash?"
By now, every grownup who didn't know his name already is acquainted with Mr. Clash's longtime role in voicing and animating Elmo. And after the tide of media coverage earlier this week, he is recognized as a 52-year-old man who, for the first time, publicly acknowledged he is gay.
Mr. Clash also swiftly denied that his accuser was underage when they had their relationship. Sesame Workshop, which produces "Sesame Street," said its own investigation bore out his claim that the relationship had been between consenting adults.
Mr. Clash had gone on voluntary leave from the show when, Tuesday afternoon, the former lover, now in his 20s, withdrew his charge.
On Wednesday, Sesame Workshop announced that Mr. Clash had asked for and was being granted "some additional time to put this ordeal behind him." No specific return date was mentioned.
But when Mr. Clash does return to the show, his young fans should be none the wiser concerning his absence. During this interim, their charming fantasy that Elmo isn't really a puppet but a living, breathing little red monster presumably can be preserved. That's because in recent months Sesame Workshop, with Mr. Clash's participation, has been working to identify a backup puppeteer for Elmo.
Just as a successor is being sought for Jerry Nelson, who died in August after decades as the man behind Count von Count. Just as an understudy sometimes climbs into the feathered suit of 78-year-old Caroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird for more than 40 years.
And just as all the creations of Jim Henson survived his sudden and untimely death nearly a quarter-century ago.
Despite the personal artistry involved, a Muppet character is meant to transcend the human factor. Or, as the Sesame Workshop statement noted Monday, "Elmo is bigger than any one person."
Now here's one more question children won't bother to ask: "Can Kevin Clash continue to star as a Muppet 3-year-old now that the world knows he is gay?"
The only reasonable answer to this nonquestion would be, Why not? "Sesame Street" is a tolerant place, just as are, increasingly, the real-life streets this show prepares its young audience for.
Meanwhile, to judge from Twitter, Elmo was still on many people's minds Wednesday. Posted comments included lots of wisecracks, including jokes tying Elmo to the current real-life scandal of Gen. David H. Petraeus. Others expressed relief that Mr. Clash had been cleared.
Children, of course, didn't care or even notice. They love Elmo now the same as ever, this character they know as a fellow child and kindred spirit.
By Mangosuthu Buthelezi
Memories of a long brotherhood tempered in common struggle
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