Elmo was a failure, initially. Debuting in a non-speaking role as "Baby Monster" in 1972, the furry red monster with large white eyes and an orange nose did not hear from PBS' now flagship show, until he was teamed with Kevin Clash in 1984.
Sesame Street staff writer Nancy Sans once described Elmo's rebirth: "Elmo used to hang around the set, helping set designers, giving the lighting crew back massages; just trying to work his way back on the show."
"I know Carol (Spinney) and Dick (Hunt) tried to write a few things for him in the 80s, but nothing really clicked."
One day Elmo was getting high behind cast member Kevin Clash's car, when Clash approached him to help write a 'Street' script. Two months later, Elmo was a prominent player on the Street.
Elmo's meteoric rise --and the personality changed that came along with it-- did not go unnoticed by the cast.
"The thing that bugged the sh-t out of me was that 'third person' thing," said Matt Robinson, who played Gordon in Street's first season. " 'Elmo has a question,' 'Elmo wants a pizza,' "Elmo is going to make red furry babies with Maria tonight.' It got old pretty quick.
In 1986, at the end of his initial, 2-year contract, producers were approached by Elmo's agent and management team to negotiate a deal. At this point, Elmo was making about $150,000 a year. His manager explained that, this time, Elmo doesn't set foot on a PBS soundstage without making more than $900,000. Producers balked.
"We didn't have that kind of money," recall Jim Henson. "Christ, how many lame pledge drives would PBS have to do to make that work?"
Because of this, Elmo began auditioning for other roles. in January 1987, Elmo was within moments of signing onto popular sitcom "Alf," playing the titular character's younger brother, when he was summoned to meet with Oz and Henson in their office.
"I knew walking in that we would not be able to pay Elmo what he wanted," said Frank Oz, now wearing a 'No, Fozzie Bear and Bert are not the same voice' t-shirt. "But we could sweeten the deal with perks we knew Elmo would be interested in."
The 5 year contract proposed to him that day included $450,000 in base salary. In addition, Elmo could do other shows and perform in movies, unless the movie's shooting schedule interfered with Sesame Street's.
Further, and most surprisingly, PBS agreed to dedicate the last 15 minutes of each episode to an Elmo-driven spin-off called "Elmo's World."
"That pissed us all off," said Oscar The Grouch, a homeless green monster that was discovered living in a soup of his own filth in a trash can on the Sesame Street set. "Cookie Monster and I were being told not to show up for tapinig, because all of our bits were cut to make room for that a - - hole Elmo."
Still, Elmo's World lifted PBS out of the proverbial sh-tter, and PBS needed him happy, healthy, and talking to his stupid fish 5 days a week.
While Elmo's professional life seemed to be on a roll, Elmo's divorce from Greta Monster was damaging his personal life.
"Elmo was just depressed," said Susan TokenBlack, who played Susan since the show's first season. "He kept asking, 'How much smack does Elmo need to die painlessly?' and 'Elmo wants to lay down in front of the C-train.' He was lonely, and I thought we'd find his body in his trailer one day."
Compounding the issue was Greta's filings for special consideration with regard to how Elmo's assets were going to be divided up. Their case made national legal news.
Two years after Greta Monster filed for divorce, New Jersey Appellate Division judge Kip Winger upheld the trial Court's finding that celebrity goodwill is a marital asset subject to equitable distribution, marking the first time in New Jersey that star quality has been treated as marital property.
As part of her ruling, Judge Winger accepted a novel method of evaluating the goodwill: Elmo was no ordinary sack of fur with a puppeteer's hand up his ass; his career will produce earnings greater than a typical entertainer.
In its ruling, Greta GoldDigger-Monster v. Elmo Monster (188 NJ. Super 204), the three judge panel ruled that Greta is entitled to 48 percent of the goodwill value that attaches to Elmo's Production Company, Inc., above and beyond its book value. Since Greta owned 48 percent of the corporation's stock, the goodwill award brings her an extra $1,490,000 in her divorce from Elmo.
To be continued in "Elmo, Baby, and the Down Low Girls."