The theater is dimly lit, just enough light to find a seat, all stiff-backed and scarlet cushioned, polished wood arm rests gleaming in a reflected glow. The seats fan out from a pair of aisles that reach from glass-paned entry doors to protruding stage where an ornately decorated proscenium arch reveals red drapes framing the screen. Although a balcony shields the rear rows, up front one may watch clouds float by overhead, concealing and revealing stars surrounded by the ornate trappings of a Spanish courtyard. As the audience gathers, the smell of popcorn wafts through the air and the theater’s pipe organ croons “How High the Moon.”
It somehow seems fitting that I should have watched Being Elmo, a film that took me back to childhood, in this setting. Nearly demolished in the late 1970s, but granted a reprieve a week before the wrecking ball descended, the restored Canton Palace Theatre is today typically the only local theater to show art or foreign films. Much to my surprise and excitement, the most recent offering was a showing of Being Elmo, a documentary about the life of Elmo’s puppeteer, Kevin Clash.
Now, I don’t really remember Elmo from my days of Sesame Street watching; the monsters I remember were Cookie Monster and Grover, the latter my favorite Sesame Street inhabitant. According to Wikipedia, Elmo as voiced by Clash first appeared in 1985, so I almost certainly saw the furry red monster when I was little, but he apparently didn’t have near the popularity he does today. But I didn’t need to have fallen in love with Elmo as a child to mange to sit through the documentary with a ridiculous grin on my face nearly the entire time (some sad moments aside).
The story in Being Elmo is almost ordinary: a boy with a dream who works hard and achieves his dream with the attendant ups and downs. But there is something compelling about his dream that pulls one back to childhood and the realm of a thousand possibilities. Watching the adoring smiles of children, completely believing in Elmo’s reality despite the man behind him, seeing the archival footage of a young Clash meeting his idols and learning the secrets to their craft, following the path of his career as he gets closer and closer to meeting Henson and then ultimately working for Henson’s studios, I cannot help but grin. Or perhaps I really am just five.