The puppet that would eventually become Elmo was designed in 1979 by Caroly Wilcox
Intended as a generic Anything Muppet monster
, labels used for the puppet included "baby monster
," "short red" (in Wilcox's sketch), and "little red" (on exhibit at Center for Puppetry Arts, Worlds of Puppetry, Jim Henson Collection
Elmo made his earliest named appearance in Season 11
), where he was first performed by Brian Muehl
. In this early appearance, Elmo communicates with Maria
only in mumbles. After he was established on the show, press releases for Season 12
described him as a character who communicates with sounds rather than words.
His appearances that season continue with the mumble talk, as in Episode 1475
where he learns the Spanish word "casa" and writes it all over the wall of 123 Sesame Street
Elmo was considered such a minor character, that the puppet was still used as an AM monster in inserts, and in these instances, as with most background Muppets, had rotating performers.[note 1]
However, writer David Korr
had taken a liking to Elmo and continued writing him into Street scenes.
In Season 16
(1984), after Brian Muehl's departure, the character was briefly taken over by Richard Hunt
, who performed Elmo with a gruff voice and often had him yelling his lines.
Hunt disliked playing Elmo and couldn't make the character work. On November 26, 1984, after the taping of Episode 2037
Hunt came into the studio's Muppet green room and literally tossed the puppet to Kevin Clash
, asking him what he could get out of it.
Clash first performed Elmo in Episode 2026
, taped on the same day.
Clash performed Elmo in remaining material for the season, and in the interim between seasons, he thought about what he could bring to the role.
While trying to find a "hook," he decided that Elmo should embody love. Clash said, "I knew that Elmo should represent love - just kissing and hugging."
Clash cites a moment in season 17
(from Episode 2215
where Elmo packs for an imaginary vacation) as the moment when he "found his voice" as Elmo.
Clash's first indicator that his performance was working was when he heard the camera crew laughing during taping. Soon after, Elmo started to build in popularity, as research showed that viewers were not only entertained by the character, but they were learning from him.
See also Proto-Elmo.