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Sherri Richards, Published July 28 2009

The Elmo effect

When Elmo takes the stage at the Fargodome this weekend, there will be screams worthy of a rock star. Because among the 2- to 3-year-old set, that’s what Elmo is.

This furry red monster may have debuted on public television as a nameless Muppet, but he has risen in the ranks to become the shining star of the “Sesame Street” lineup.

Just look at this year’s touring “Sesame Street Live” productions. In addition to “Elmo’s Green Thumb,” which debuts in Fargo on Friday, there’s “Elmo Makes Music,” “When Elmo Grows Up” and “1-2-3 Imagine With Elmo and Friends.”

Five years ago, when Dayna Deutsch joined VEE Corp., which produces and presents “Sesame Street Live,” the shows were more generically titled. But the company noticed a trend, she says.

“Anything titled with Elmo in it did have a very positive effect on ticket sales,” says Deutsch, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

So they started producing more shows with Elmo as the star, and gave him top billing in ensembles.

“Research tells us that Elmo over the last decade or so has just become so enormously popular with preschoolers,” Deutsch says. “Elmo the furry red monster has somehow in a very special way connected with the 2- and 3-year-olds out there.”

According to the Sesame Street Web site, Elmo first appeared on the show in 1979 but was known only as Little Monster until 1980-81.

Elmo’s bubbly personality and signature giggle didn’t emerge until puppeteer Kevin Clash began performing the character in 1984-85.

Clash’s personification of Elmo seems to be what has won over an ever renewing batch of preschoolers, says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

“While all the Sesame Street characters are childlike in their behavior, the fact that Elmo really is a toddler, to a great extent in his personality and the way he behaves, is really appealing to kids,” Thompson says.

Elmo’s optimism, playfulness and infectious giggle also make him very engaging to children, Thompson says.

Morgan Jenkins meets many Sesame Street fans as community engagement coordinator for Prairie Public. For example, she organized the Share-a-Story event at Fargo’s Rheault Farm, which featured fellow Sesame Street resident Grover. (“We tried to get Elmo also, but Elmo was way too popular. He was way booked,” she says.)

Jenkins agrees Elmo’s youthfulness is his appeal.

“Big Bird’s really big. So is Snuffy. Oscar has a real deep voice,” she says. “I think that Elmo, he sounds more like a kid, he acts more like a kid. He’s so silly. He’s constantly making you laugh.”

In 1996, Elmo’s popularity erupted into Christmas mania when Tickle Me Elmo became the season’s must-have toy. Other toys followed, including Rock & Roll Elmo, Hokey Pokey Elmo and Chicken Dance Elmo.

“Elmo’s World,” a 20-minute mostly animated segment at the end of “Sesame Street,” premiered in 1998, solidifying Elmo’s star status.

Laura Lempe, director of Elim Children’s Center in Fargo, says the kids in her center prefer to watch DVDs of “Elmo’s World” to “Sesame Street.”

“They can relate with Elmo because Elmo’s a little guy, too,” Lempe says.

That morning, Lempe says, the kids at day care squabbled over who got to wear the Elmo bib at breakfast. And the boy who ended up with it spent the whole meal repeating Elmo’s name.

“It seems like it’s one of the first words we hear our 2-year-olds say,” Lempe says.

“He’s like Brad Pitt (is) to us,” she adds. “They go crazy for him.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556