From 'Sesame Street' to Broadway John Tartaglia, raised in Maple Shade and Ambler, has had a hand in presenting Elmo on PBS. Now his animated face is on view as he stars in a surprising new stage hit, "Avenue Q."

Posted: September 21, 2003

NEW YORK — As a child, John Tartaglia played with foam latex. Not that he told everyone - kids can be cruel that way - but his fondest dream was to be a puppeteer.

He was a closet Muppet.

"I was, like, psychotic," Tartaglia recalls, lunching at the theater boite Barrymore's, being treated like the Broadway star he's become in the hit musical Avenue Q. "I knew everything about the Muppets."

Young John, who grew up in Maple Shade and then Ambler, wrote Jim Henson a fan letter. He wrote Kevin Clash, Muppet captain and the human behind Elmo. Then Tartaglia got a job as Elmo at Sesame Place in Langhorne.

Frankly, it might have been easier had he wanted to be a movie star: The number of employed Muppeteers totals 20. But a few years later, Tartaglia made the big-time transition from Place to Street.

His mother, Angie Radosh, never worried. "He always had that confidence, and absolute vision. Other mothers were going to the Sports Authority while I was going to Homemaker's Fabrics, buying glue sticks and three-quarter-inch foam," says Radosh of her only child. "He knew he wanted to do this since he was 8." Her home is filled with many of his childhood puppets, including Franklin Roostervelt and Carol Chatting.

The family, performers all, supported the dream. Radosh is an actress in South Florida. Tartaglia's father, Bob, is a music director and accompanist in New Jersey. His grandmother, Wilhelminia Davis, was an opera singer in the Netherlands.

Tartaglia, now 25, worked for Sesame Street while still a student at Upper Dublin High School and starring in virtually every one of its musical productions. Days after graduation, Tartaglia joined the PBS cast, forsaking a drama scholarship at the University of Maryland, Henson's alma mater.

Tartaglia became, literally, Elmo's right hand, working with his idol, Clash.

Eight years after graduation, Tartaglia's on Broadway in Avenue Q, the universally acclaimed musical starring a dozen puppets, four puppeteers and three nonpuppeteering actors. One actress performs the role of Christmas Eve, a heavily accented Japanese therapist, and another actress plays the role of Gary Coleman, the Gary Coleman, now working as a super in an outer borough.

It doesn't sound as if it would work at all. It works beautifully. And Tartaglia, who is adorable, has become a sensation.

Despite the pastel puppets, Avenue Q is decidedly not for young children. Aside from tart language and mature subjects, songs such as "It Sucks to Be Me" and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," there is foam sex.

In full view of the audience, sometimes in tandem, Tartaglia performs as both sexually confused Rod and metaphysically lost Princeton, the latter spending the play looking for his "purpose."

Avenue Q went from workshop to Off-Broadway to Broadway in three years, a remarkably short time to mint a bona fide hit musical. Tartaglia was the only person considered for the male lead by creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. The fit, fresh-faced actor and singer is the youngest puppeteer on Sesame Street.

He's been photographed by Richard Avedon for the New Yorker. Star Avenue Q patrons boldface the gossip columns; this very day, Rue McClanahan's out there, much to Tartaglia's delight. "I'm crazy for The Golden Girls. It's like comfort food," he gushes. The cast album reaches stores Oct. 7, his rich alto indelibly attached to Rod and Princeton. In June, he went to the Tonys for the first time. Next year, Avenue Q is all but assured multiple nominations.

Over a between-shows meal of salad and a turkey burger, Tartaglia coughs repeatedly.

"It's probably a feather." Really? "Oh yeah, it happens."

Effervescent and pathologically optimistic, Tartaglia appears to have not an enemy in the world, even in the shark's tank of New York theater.

"He's like my baby brother," says costar Stephanie D'Abruzzo, a colleague from Sesame Street. "I've watched him grow up."

"I'm like his second mother," says his former Upper Dublin drama teacher Debbie Thompson, who cried through the entire show the first time she saw it. "He's my first Broadway baby." This fall, she's taking 43 students to see the show.

"I could see the talent in him from day one," says Danette De Sena, Sesame Street's talent producer. "He's very well loved."

Over the years, Sesame Workshop and the Jim Henson Company have been aggressive in guarding their enterprise, legally pursuing altered imagery, misappropriation of names, even a short film suggesting Bert and Ernie are gay. But none of this has happened with Avenue Q, even though Trekkie Monster traffics in porn and sounds amazingly like Cookie Monster (his look was altered), Lucy T. Slut sounds like Miss Piggy greeting the fleet, and closeted Rod has an unrequited love for his winsome roommate, Nicky.

Quite the contrary, perhaps because Avenue Q is so sweet and admiring of the original without ever being treacly. "We're all so very, very proud" of Tartaglia, says De Sena, who has seen the show five times. "Kevin Clash and I always say he's going to be a big, big star."

Puppeteering engenders a great camaraderie among its practitioners; the fact that they usually work anonymously may contribute to their mutual generosity. Tartaglia and two other puppeteers from the show will return to Sesame for eight weeks of taping beginning next month.

Indeed, this is a historic Broadway Muppet moment, with two other Sesame puppeteers working in the revival of Little Shop of Horrors, scheduled to open Oct. 2.

Tartaglia remains Elmo's understudy. He's the man behind - or, rather, below - Tingo, star of Sesame English, a language instruction program that airs globally and is used by Berlitz.

"I got worried a year or so ago that I was getting too old to be in Broadway," Tartaglia says, looking hardly a day over 20. "I'm a very determined person. I had two plans: A, to be a puppeteer; B, to on Broadway."

So, unlike Princeton, he's found his purpose?

"Yes, I found my purpose," he says. "Guess I'll have to find a new one."

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

Theater

Avenue Q

At Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St., New York. Tuesdays to Sundays. Information: 1-800-432-7250 or telecharge.com.

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