Kevin Clash, the longtime puppeteer who brought beloved Sesame Street Muppet Elmo to life, has been accused of having had an improper relationship with a teenage boy.
An unidentified man, now 23, approached show producer Sesame Workshop in June, saying he and Clash, 52, began a relationship seven years ago when he was 16. Clash has voiced Elmo since 1984 and has helped make the character the show's most popular toy-seller.
Clash has taken an open-ended leave, and the Workshop plans to film new episodes using understudies he trained. In a statement, the Workshop said: "Elmo is bigger than any one person and will continue to be an integral part of Sesame Street."
In a statement from his publicist, Risa Heller, Clash confirmed he had had "a relationship with the accuser" but denied the man was underage at the time. "I am a gay man. I have never been ashamed of this or tried to hide it, but felt it was a personal and private matter," he said. The relationship "was between two consenting adults, and I am deeply saddened that he is trying to characterize it as something other than what it was."
Workshop representatives met twice with the accuser and with Clash, and after investigating, they "found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated," the company said in a statement. But Clash "exercised poor judgment and violated company policy regarding Internet usage" and was disciplined.
Though Sesame Street wouldn't "want to be affiliated with a guy who was having sex with minors," says Stacey Honowitz, a supervisor in the sex crimes unit of the Broward County, Fla., state attorney's office and a TV legal analyst, "it's really hard for anybody to make that call" with guilt in question and no charges filed.
She says publicity from the Jerry Sandusky Penn State trial may provide "strength in numbers" as victims come forward in other cases, but it also could provide incentive for an opportunist. And in Clash's defense, she says, it's "very rare" for a pedophile to admit sexual contact.
A big question mark as the holiday season approaches is the effect on Sesame Street toy sales, which industry magazine Time to Play estimates at $75 million wholesale. Elmo represents at least half that total and is "the star of the show" in that regard, says editor in chief Jim Silver.
The allegations are "not going to hurt in terms of kids who want the product; a child doesn't know what's going on," Silver says. But parents are another story: "I can definitely see it affecting sales of Elmo-related products. Sesame is in a tough position: They don't want to treat Kevin as guilty, but the stronger position they take, the better parents will feel."
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