Puppeteer Kevin Clash, the performer behind Elmo, one of Sesame Street's most beloved characters, has taken a leave of absence following news reports of an allegation that he had an inappropriate relationship with an underage boy, according to a statement released today by Sesame Workshop.
The accuser recanted Tuesday afternoon (see update, below).
The Workshop heard of the allegation in June, when a 23-year-old who claimed to have had a relationship with Clash at the age of 16 first communicated with the company. "We took the allegation very seriously and took immediate action," the Workshop said in its statement. "We met with the accuser twice and had repeated communications with him. We met with Kevin, who denied the accusation. We also conducted a thorough investigation and found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated."
The Workshop found that Clash and his accuser had "a personal relationship unrelated to the workplace," according to the statement, and that Clash had "exercised poor judgment and violated company policy" regarding Internet usage. Clash was disciplined, but the Workshop didn't say how.
"Kevin insists that the allegation of underage conduct is false and defamatory and he is taking actions to protect his reputation," the Workshop said. "We have granted him a leave of absence to do so."
"Elmo is bigger than any one person," the Workshop statement adds, "and will continue to be an integral part of Sesame Street to engage, educate and inspire children around the world, as it has for 40 years."
Clash told the gossip news site TMZ that he'd had a relationship with his accuser but denied that the accuser was underage at the time. "It was between two consenting adults and I am deeply saddened that he is trying to make it into something it was not," Clash said.
TMZ cited "sources with direct knowledge of the situation" in reporting that the accuser had contacted Andreozzi & Associates, the Harrisburg, Pa., firm that represented one of the victims in the Jerry Sandusky child-rape case at the Penn State University. A representative for the firm told Current that TMZ's report "is not accurate."
Clash is one of the most high-profile of the Sesame Street puppeeters, winner of 10 Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Hoots the Owl and the happy, childlike Elmo. His 2006 autobiography is titled My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love and Laughing Out Loud. Clash was the subject of the critically acclaimed 2011 documentary, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey.