Costume Character Confessions: Elmo Speaks

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Nina Africano

In true tabloid fashion, AOL Travel went behind the scenes at Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pa. to ask: Who is this Elmo character? What's behind the furry red face that rules the hearts and minds of so many kids?

Surprise -- it's a girl! Danielle Shinder, a young singer and dancer from Holland, Pa. has been playing the Elmo character at the Pa. theme park on and off since she was 15 years old. And contrary to the slightly provocative headline of this article, Elmo doesn't actually speak at Sesame Place -- all the costume characters' voices are recorded; people have the only speaking roles.

In case you're childless or have been living in a cave for the past 20 years or so, Elmo is the furry red costume character who is the acknowledged king of Sesame Street. Once puppeteer Kevin Clash defined Elmo's personality and gave Elmo his signature giggle, his popularity quickly surpassed that of all the Sesame Street regulars -- Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and Ernie & Bert. Elmo was in demand everywhere, appearing on Martha Stewart Living, The Rosie O'Donnell Show, The View and The West Wing. He even went Hollywood, with two feature films: Elmo in Grouchland and Elmo Saves Christmas.

Elmo Costume Character

The woman behind the mask, Danielle Shinder

Elmo is also the only non-human ever to testify before Congress, appearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services and Education in April 2002 to plead for more funding for music education.

"Elmo's World" now takes up 15 minutes of Sesame Street's one-hour program, and has been visited by celebrities like Natalie Portman, Jamie Foxx and Ellen Degeneres.

So how did Danielle, a youngster who had worked in a day camp, land the gig? She auditioned at the open casting call Sesame Place holds every January for dancers, hosts, and live characters (i.e. people). "We were taught dance combinations because they want to see how you move. These weren't easy dance routines because the shows are very physical -- they're full-scale musicals."

Though dancing and physical expression are important qualifications for all costume characters, the specific roles of the costume characters are not assigned by prestige, experience, or even gender -- it's all according to height. Petite Danielle plays not only the Elmo character, but also Zoe and Abby Cadabby, a fairy-in-training; taller actors might get to play Big Bird or Super Grover. And Danielle is not the only Elmo on the block at Sesame Place; at least half a dozen enthusiastic young people don the signature costume every day.

But Danielle's Elmo may be one of the longest-running; she's been doing it since 2004, and it's not much of a stretch to say that the Elmo character helped put Danielle through college at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where she was a theater major. The secret of Elmo's appeal, says Danielle, is that "he's young and kids can relate to him. He's the same age as the kids who watch Sesame Street and come to Sesame Place. He's kind of learning about the world the way they are. One day he's learning about fish. The next day it's something else. He's very relatable to a young child. They're learning about some of the same things he's learning about.

"Kids love Elmo" she says, "but parents really, really love Elmo. Doing a show or posing for pictures, parents get even more excited, while kids can be a little shy."

Elmo Costume Character

Elmo performs with other Sesame Place characters

Danielle and the other Elmo characters work hard to maintain the illusion that there's one and only one Elmo -- although the furry little monster appears in the daily "Rock Around the Block Parade," four times a day in "Elmo Rocks!" and eight times a day in "Elmo's World Live!" In addition to those performances, there are Elmo photo ops at 1-2-3 Smile With Me! and Dine With Me! Yet kids will never see two Elmos at once. Disney World may have secret tunnels for characters to get around the park, but Sesame Place has a low-tech secret: every venue has a dressing room backstage where extra costumes are kept. So Danielle can casually stroll across Sesame Place in her street clothes, and emerge 10 minutes later as Elmo -- or Zoe or Abby Cadabby.

Being Elmo certainly has its challenges -- tears and temper tantrums are all part of a day's work at Sesame Place. And scorching summer heat doesn't make the fuzzy suit any lighter. But like a budding young trouper, Danielle takes it all in stride. "You get used to it," she says. "When you're dancing and performing, you don't think about the heat when there are 900 people here clapping and singing." And there is certainly a payoff to playing Elmo -- hugs. "Hugs are definitely the best."

Danielle is at her Elmo-est when the crew from Sesame Place visits the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia four to six times a year. "It's probably one of my favorite things to do because we're able to go there and see how excited the kids get. We visit a number of different units at the hospital."

But she really has to draw on her inner resources when the Make-A-Wish Foundation brings kids with life-threatening illness to Sesame Place. "That is one of the hardest things to see, but also the most fulfilling. Their [the kids'] wish is to meet these characters, and it warms your heart because you know you're doing something so good."

Playing the Elmo character, Danielle may have gotten a taste of fame, but she has ambitions of her own that do not include googly eyes. This fall, in addition to playing Jamie, a live character in the Count's Halloween Spooktacular, she will be touring regionally with "It's Not Mean to be Green," an eco-musical for kids. But her sights are set on Broadway. "That's the dream," she confides, "or to be on 'Glee'."

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