Elmo is the world's favorite furry red monster. In fact, Elmo is the most recognizable children's character in the United States, according to research from Marketing Evaluations, Inc.
For the past 21 years on the award-winning television show "Sesame Street," Elmo has been educating and entertaining fans worldwide. Both children and adults are smitten by his cute, googly eyes and his high-pitched laugh. Through singing, laughter, and educational play, Elmo encourages children to use their imaginations and helps them learn preschool fundamentals.
Elmo, his pet goldfish Dorothy, and their silly friend Mr. Noodle are the stars of "Elmo's World," one of "Sesame Street's" most popular segments. Elmo's adventures have been made into more than 50 "Elmo's World" episodes, numerous home videos, and a full-length feature movie. In this article, we'll take a look at all things Elmo, with a little help from Rosemarie Truglio, Ph.D., vice president of "Sesame Street" Education and Research.
The world's most recognizable puppet was once simply called "Baby Monster" and appeared without his signature high-pitched voice and contagious giggle. Baby Monster was used in several sketches on "Sesame Street" in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the sketch "Near and Far," staring Kermit the Frog and Henry and Harvey Monster. Elmo also made a brief appearance in the storybook "The "Sesame Street" Circus of Opposites," published in 1981, but was colored dark orange instead of his usual red.
"Sesame Street" Muppeteer Brian Muehl (Telly Monster, Barkley the dog) was the original voice for Elmo. The late Richard Hunt (Forgetful Jones, Gladys the Cow, Sonny Friendly) also performed as Elmo for a brief period. Legendary Muppeteer Caroll Spinney recalls in his book, "The Wisdom of Big Bird" (Villard Books), that Elmo repeated his words a lot, such as "Play! Play! Elmo wants to play!" and talked very fast.
You may be surprised to learn that Elmo was put into storage for several years. Elmo got his big break when "Sesame Street" producers decided they wanted a red monster on the set. They liked the look of the Baby Monster puppet, but Hunt didn't want to perform it. Hunt asked Kevin Clash, then a Muppeteer-in-training, to take on the role.
According to Clash's biography, " My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love and Laughing Out Loud," Hunt tossed him "a shapeless, soft bundle of red" and challenged him to come up with a voice for the Muppet.
"I'd used that falsetto voice in my characters before," Clash wrote. "When he gave me the puppet, I knew that was the voice."
Not long after Clash gave Elmo his distinctive falsetto voice and brought to the Muppet his cheerful, curious outlook on the world, Elmo became one of the most popular characters in the history of "Sesame Street."
For those behind in their Elmo trivia, Elmo is a never-aging three-and-a-half-year-old monster. Elmo lives on the third floor of the 123 Sesame Street apartment building with his mother Gladys, his father Louie Monster, and his baby sister Daisy. He loves to tap dance, ask questions, play with his friends Zoe and Grover, and care for Dorothy, his pet goldfish.
"Well, first of all, Kevin is an amazing puppeteer," said Truglio. "Beyond that, he's red, and although that is a simple thing, red attracts very young children. Same thing with the voice. Children really react well to Elmo's voice."
Elmo's age also resonates with preschoolers. "Children often gravitate to Muppets around their own age, who act like they do and are going through the same experiences they are. Elmo represents a preschooler, and much of our audience is made up of preschoolers," she said.
There are a couple other aspects that make Elmo so loveable. "It doesn't hurt that Elmo is also cute, cuddly, and funny," Truglio said.
The Man Behind the Muppet
The 45-year-old, six-foot-tall African-American with a slightly gruff voice seems to be an unlikely match for the tiny preschooler Elmo, but Kevin Clash's enthusiam for his furry red alter-ego is undeniable.
In "My Life as a Furry Red Monster," Clash talks about life with Elmo and explains his interesting beginnings in puppetry and children's television. Clash began building puppets at a very young age. Although he was teased for his unusual hobby, Clash's parents were supportive, providing him with materials and driving him to puppet shows. When Clash cut apart his father's good overcoat to create a puppet, his father reacted by asking, "What's it's name?"
After Clash was hired by Sesame Workshop, he tried his hand at a few different Muppets: a sportscaster, an elderly professor, and a juggler. These characters didn't really catch on, so Clash was free to take up the part of the little red monster.
Clash divulged an Elmo fact that fans might be surprised to learn: There are actually eight Elmo clones in the "Sesame Street" New York studio, each with different features and functions. To make Elmo as real as possible and to maintain the illusion for young viewers, Clash and the other Muppeteers rarely appear in public and virtually never on screen.
We know Elmo is one of the biggest stars on "Sesame Street." In the next section, we'll talk about how exactly Elmo fits into life on America's favorite street.
How Sesame Street Brings Muppets to Life
"Sesame Street" premiered in 1969. Since then, it has grown into a worldwide franchise with more than 4,000 episodes. "Sesame Street" has won more than 100 awards, including eight Grammys, four Parents' Choice Awards, and 71 Emmys -- more than any other show in history. It has been host to more than 250 celebrity guests and has been watched by 77 percent of all preschool-age kids.
"Sesame Street" was the brainchild of a young television documentary producer named Joan Ganz Cooney. The concept of the show's format was inspired by TV commercials, which Cooney thought would hold young viewers' attention better than traditional children's programming. She had noted that kids responded to "banana-peel humor." From these observations, the most successful children's show in the history of television was born.
The use of puppets had been envisioned for "Sesame Street" from the beginning. It was felt that Muppets were the perfect means to entertain preschoolers while they learned. In the mid-1960s, Jim Henson was already a renowned artist and puppeteer and was brought in to create a family of puppet characters for "Sesame Street." The late Henson also came up with their unique name -- Muppet -- a combination of the words "marionette" and "puppet."
How Muppets Are Made
New Muppets begin as a sketch by the Muppet art director, Ed Christie. Christie's drawings then get feedback from the writers, directors, and Muppeteers. The selections are narrowed down to one design, which Christie then turns into a finished drawing.
Once the drawing has been approved, the Muppet builders form the raw materials into a working puppet. Muppet builders are designers who have experience in sewing, sculpting, and pattern-making. Each Muppet is made of the same materials: foam rubber and adhesives. Muppets are decorated with faux furs, fabrics, eyes, noses, and other features such as horns, antennae, or embellishments, depending on their purpose. Engineers add any needed mechanisms, such as moving eyebrows or remote-controlled hands.
"Sesame Street" Around The Globe
From its inception, the strategy for "Sesame Street" has been to combine education with entertainment. By building a community of playful and curious Muppets, and adding a street scene that featured real children and adults, "Sesame Street" seems to have hit on the secret formula for taking children's television to a new level.
"Sesame Street" and its variations are now aired in approximately 140 different countries. Each of the show's international co-productions is carefully crafted to meet the specific needs of the local children, dealing with regional-specific issues. For example, the Israeli/Palestinian co-production "Rechov Sumsum/Shara's Simsim" is designed to teach children in both territories about mutual respect and tolerance. South Africa's "Takalani Sesame" features Kami, an HIV-positive Muppet.
While there are some familiar characters in the international versions, each show has its own unique Muppets that you won't find on the U.S. version. China has Xiao Mei Zi, a bright red female monster. Mexico's version of Big Bird is a huge green, yellow, and red parrot. Here's a look at some of the characters used in international productions of "Sesame Street":
- Kami: A bright yellow HIV-positive Muppet on "Takalani Sesame" in South Africa who teaches AIDS awareness
- Hu Hu Zhu: A blue opera-loving pig who teaches children about the arts on China's "Zhima Jie"
- Haneen: A playful orange and pink monster with a vibrant personality who teaches tolerance on "Sesame Stories," shown in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan
- Abelardo: Big Bird's cousin, who has green instead of yellow feathers and lives south of the border on "Plaza Sesamo"
- Samsom: A big, brown, curious bear who loves to mambo on "Sesamstrasse" in Germany
- Rumpel: Oscar the Grouch's green cousin on "Sesamstrasse." He lives in a barrel instead of a trashcan and spends his time with his best friend, Gustav, who is a caterpillar.
- Zeliboba: This multicolored Muppet, who always wears a neck tie, was inspired by the tree spirits of Russian folklore. In Russia, Zeliboba and his buddies on "Ulitsa Sezam" encourage optimism, nutrition and health.
- Louis: This French Canadian sea otter promotes Canadian culture and the French language on "Sesame Park"
- Pino: Another one of Big Bird's cousins, Pino, is a blue bird who lives on "Sesamstraat" in the Netherlands. His catch phrase is "echt waar" ("really?"), and he helps children with socio-emotional development.
"Sesame Street" is indeed a hit around the world -- and so is Elmo. In the next section, we'll discuss "Elmo's World."
Behind the Scenes of Elmo's World
"Sesame Street" is the show that made Elmo famous. Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of Education and Research for "Sesame Street," gave us a rare look into what goes on behind the scenes at "Elmo's World."
The idea for an Elmo segment came just before the 30th season of "Sesame Street." Research showed that the average viewing age was getting younger. The show was more popular with the under three crowd than ever before, but Truglio says that the younger viewers were losing interest around the show's 45 minute mark. Producers sought a way to capitalize on the research.
They came up with the idea for a truncated version of "Sesame Street." The original format would end around 45 minutes, and a shorter segment, designed to engage the youngest set of viewers, would air during the final 20 minutes of the show.
Elmo had always tested well with young audiences, so he was the natural choice for the show's host. "Elmo's World" debuted on November 16, 1998. The show-within-a-show fit perfectly with the season's "Discovery and Exploration" theme, as Elmo investigated the world in a way young preschoolers understood: through simple subject-matter and lots -- and lots -- of repetition. For example, every "Elmo's World" episode begins with Elmo announcing the topic of the day. The topics are something simple and familiar in a child's life, such as shoes, music, the sky, dogs, mail, or babies. Elmo, his pet goldfish Dorothy, and their silly friend Mr. Noodle explore the topics through a child's eyes with a series of kits and interviews."We pick subjects we know preschoolers are drawn to and then select a few basic educational messages they can take away with them," Truglio said. One characteristic feature of "Elmo's World" that children love (and may drive some parents crazy) is that it has precisely the same segments, in the same exact order, every day. Like it or not, "Sesame" research has shown that the formula appeals to young children's attraction to ritual and routine, and that children's participation in the show (through singing, dancing, or talking to the TV screen) increases with repetition.The finale of each episode of "Elmo's World" is when Elmo sings his hit single, to the tune of "Jingle Bells." The lyrics change with the words of the day. "Elmo's World" has undergone a few changes. When it first appeared, Elmo narrated the mini-documentaries. Today, the documentaries, which feature real kids, are shot and narrated by the young filmmakers.In the beginning, the same "Elmo's World" segment was repeated on all five shows for the week, but by the end of the inital season, this practice was dropped. In 2001, Elmo's crayon-animated computer began delivering e-mail from his Sesame Street friends about games, bugs, and the topic of the day. These computer segments replaced the "Elmocam" home video portion of the show used in the first two seasons. Parents may be wondering if there is more to "Elmo's World" than singing and silliness. Learn about the learning aspects of Elmo in the next section.
Playing and Learning With Elmo
Since it's part of "Sesame Street," each "Elmo's World" episode is based on extensive research and is created to deliver specially targeted educational messages.
"We have a model we follow from the very beginning of the creation process. It really keeps the focus on the educational value and objectives," said Rosemarie Truglio, Ph.D., vice president of "Sesame Street" Education and Research. Called the Sesame Workshop Model, the approach equally integrates research, educational content and production.
The process starts with the "Sesame Street" curriculum document, created by the advisory team. "The team that comes up with the messages behind 'Elmo's World' [is made up of] developmental psychologists, early childhood educators, and other experts in the area of children's health," said Truglio.
The curriculum document guides all aspects of production, and includes educational goals and the messages for the writers to address in their scripts. "The writers must hit the outlined messages several times throughout each episode," Truglio said.
If the writers somehow miss the target messages, or if there are issues with the execution of the goals, they are addressed with the writers during the script review. The writers understand that the educational message is important and make changes when needed.
"Then we test our product with real preschool children," said Truglio. "We observe them watching the show and conduct one-on-one interviews afterwards."
The "take-away messages" built into every episode of "Elmo's World" are among the key things that make the show unique. For example, the episode about dogs teaches that dogs need water, food, and exercise to stay healthy. Viewers learn that dogs communicate by barking and wagging their tail, and children should never pet a dog they don't know. An episode about the sky explains the objects children might find in the sky (such as the sun, moon, and clouds), and that some things can be found both in the sky and on the Earth (such as kites, airplanes, and birds).
Truglio says that because "Elmo's World" is so focused and child-friendly, it is well-suited for parents to reinforce the learning elements with their child after the show.
"Because each show is topic-driven, it's easy to do your own discovery and exploration," said Truglio. "From an educator's point of view, 'Elmo's World' is the perfect springboard for parents and caregivers to keep exploring and learning with the concepts found in 'Sesame Street' at home."
In the next section, we'll meet some of the characters that your preschooler will learn from when watching "Elmo's World."
Elmo's World Characters
Then star of "Elmo's World" is, of course, Elmo himself, but his co-stars and friends are critical to the show's success as well. The following is a look at each "Elmo's World" character.
Elmo is a three-and-a-half-year-old furry red monster with an infectious giggle. Elmo is also known for refering to himself in the third person. Enthusiastic, friendly, and always cheerful, he wants to be part of everything that goes on. Like most preschoolers, he sometimes doesn't have the knowledge or skills to do the things he wants. Although it can cause some interesting predicaments, it never stops him because he has a very positive, optimistic view of himself and life.
In the current "Elmo's World" segments for Season 37, Elmo, Dorothy (his pet fish), and Mr. Noodle cover topics such as friends, penguins, doctors, building, horses, and fast/slow. In a street story, Elmo plays pretend school with Alan. They sing the alphabet, read stories, and draw while Alan works at Mr. Hooper's Store.
Dorothy, a goldfish who can understand Elmo through her goldfish bowl, is Elmo's best friend. Dorothy is inquisitive and possesses an active imagination. Whatever topic is explored, the audience gets to see into her imagination as she visualizes the subject and concepts of the episode. Unlike some of the character's in "Elmo's World," Dorothy is not a muppet nor a part of Elmo's imagination -- she is a real, live fish.
In a Web chat with the Sun Online, Elmo talked about his fishy-friend: "Elmo's best friend is his goldfish Dorothy. Elmo goes to the movies with Dorothy, Elmo plays checkers with Dorothy, Elmo even goes to dinner with Dorothy, but Elmo never orders seafood!"
Mr. Noodle is a silent, Charlie Chaplin-like character who helps Elmo explain the word or topic of the day. Elmo often asks Mr. Noodle to demonstrate how to perform a chore or answer a question. He responds through pantomime but invariably gets the process wrong or fails to follow Elmo's instructions. Through trial and error and a lot of silliness, Mr. Noodle usually manages to figure it out.
Mr. Noodle's Brother, Mr. Noodle
As Mr. Noodle's brother, also named Mr. Noodle, late Tony and Emmy awards-winning actor Michael Jeter demonstrated concepts through a process of trial-and-error while letting children know that it is OK to make mistakes. Jeter passed away in 2003, but his role as Mr. Noodle can still be seen in repeat "Elmo's World" segments.
Zoe is a three-year-old female monster and Elmo's best monster friend. She is usually seen in the "Sesame Street" stories rather than on "Elmo's World." Zoe was designed to visually complement Elmo.The red in Zoe's mouth is the same color as Elmo's fur, and Elmo's nose is the same color as Zoe's fur.
Learn what's in store for each of the characters in our "Elmo's World" episode guide. It's in the next section.
Elmo's World Episode Guide
Part of what makes "Elmo's World" so successful is the show's repetition. Preschoolers thrive on that repetition, and learn from it.
"Sesame Street" Season 37
Sesame Street's newest resident, Abby Cadabby, is looking for someone to play with. When first she meets Oscar, who isn't very nice to her, Abby begins to feel sorry that her family moved to Sesame Street. Then she meets Snuffy and Big Bird. They invite her to play hide-and-seek with them and their friends, and she also practices her fairy-in-training skills and learns to count to ten. She also meets Elmo and Zoe, who invite her play with them. Abby is so happy that she floats in the air.
It's Abby's first day of school at the Storybook Community School, and she is very excited. Mrs. (Mother) Goose introduces Abby to the class, and they make her feel at home. However, Abby doesn't have anything to present for show-and-tell. When Abby accidentally taps Elmo with her magic wand, he is transported to Abby's school. Abby introduces Elmo for show-and-tell and explains to the class that he is a good friend.
Gabi and Miles are graduating from high school. Elmo can't believe they are finished with school when he hasn't even started. Gabi and Miles reminisce about their very first day of school and tell Elmo how they remember the books, toys, blocks, and art supplies in their classroom. They also remember that they both wanted to play with a fire truck at the same time. This taught them about sharing and how it is an important part of being in schoo. This prompts Elmo to think about what it will be like when he goes to school.
Elmo wants to play school, but he can't find a teacher. As Alan works at Mr. Hooper's Store, he agrees to become Elmo's pretend teacher. Throughout Elmo's day, he gets to draw a picture, listen to Mr. Alan read a book, and sing the alphabet song. Other kids join Mr. Alan's school class, along with Old McDonald's goat and an elephant that has come all the way from Staten Island to learn how to rhyme. At the end of the day, Elmo thanks Mr. Alan for the best day ever of pretend school.
When the "Alphabet Road Show" comes to Sesame Street, it is in search of people saying the alphabet in unusual ways. Telly and Baby Bear know exactly how they are going to say the alphabet, but Elmo is unsure. Elmo decides that he is going to go for a bike ride to help him think. David Letterguy is about to leave when he hears Elmo saying the alphabet while riding his tricycle. This is an unusual way to say the alphabet, and Elmo makes it on the show.
It's National Try a New Food Day on Sesame Street. Baby Bear, who always has his porridge with brown sugar and honey, is going to try it with some fresh fruit on top. He thinks it's delicious and wants to try his porridge with a new fruit every day. Oscar tries a cherry on top of his chocolate ice cream with fish, sauerkraut, and marshmallows; Gordon tries sushi; Cookie Monster tries celery; Telly Monster has his grilled cheese sandwich cut into squares instead of triangles; and Elmo tries asparagus with the encouragement of best friend Zoe.
What's in store for Elmo? We'll tell you a few secrets in our final section.
The Future of Elmo
Elmo's adventures are broadcast daily on the current season of "Sesame Street," available on videos and DVDs, and his likeness appears on everything from toys to books to clothing.
Elmo has been brought to new, larger-than-life dimensions at Sesame Place, a theme park located near Philadelphia in Pennsylvania that is based on "Sesame Street." In May, 2006, a 21,000-square-foot Elmo area, aptly named Elmo's World, opened within the park. Sesame Place, a licensee of Sesame Workshop and a division of Busch Entertainment Corporation, offers more than three-dozen interactive activities, including water attractions, a roller coaster, and live stage shows.
Another new venture for Elmo is a reincarnation of an old favorite. The new toy T.M.X. Elmo (the "X" in T.M.X. stands for "extreme") was timed to match the 10th anniversary of Tickle Me Elmo, the must-have toy that giggled when its stomach was pressed. The new-and-improved version made its debut on ABC's "Good Morning America" in early October 2006 and instantly had customers lining up at stores nationwide.
Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, of Sesame Workshop, let us in on a secret for what to expect from Elmo. "I just found out that in 2007 Season 38, Elmo will be learning about mouths, noses, violins, and the beach," she said. "I read one of the scripts, and even I learned something. "I didn't know that a whale is the only animal that has just one nostril. Did you?"
It's just one more example of how Elmo gives learners -- both big and small -- something informative and fun to think about.