Niagara Gazette

February 28, 2013

Making music with Elmo and the gang

By Paul Lane
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — People may try to get to “Sesame Street” to see Elmo, but Denise Pajak feels Bert is the real reason to take the trip.

The Western New York native is in her fifth year playing Bert. This year, she portrays the cantankerous first half of “Sesame Street’s” favorite duo in “Sesame Street Live: Elmo Makes Music,” which begins a five-day run at Shea’s next week.

Pajak said she can remember loving Bert (and Cookie Monster) while watching the show early in her childhood in Cheektowaga.

“He’s really my go-to buddy,” Pajak said in a phone interview from Detroit, where the show recently completed a four-week stay at the Fox Theatre. “There’s something about him I just really connect with. I really like his sarcasm. The children may go crazy over Elmo, but the parents love Bert and Ernie.”

Those who check out this version of “Sesame Street Live” will see all the characters they love. The show follows a music teacher named Jenny who moves to Sesame Street but loses her musical instruments along the way. The residents of her new home improvise with everything from rubber duckies to trash cans and cookie jars to make sweet songs in lieu of Jenny’s more traditional methods. The score of the show features covers of old-time songs such as “The Hustle” and “Rockin’ Robin.” Mixed in are familiar favorites from the show.

“You get a little bit of everything,” she said.

Despite beginning her quest toward a degree from Buffalo State College, Pajak couldn’t resist the call once Vee Corporation called her asking her to join a tour. She auditioned at her sister’s urging and didn’t get the job, but she got the call the following year while attending school and working at a shoe store at the Walden Galleria Mall. She’s been dancing since age 3, so she considered it an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up.

That opportunity has taken her to nearly all 50 states and eight foreign countries. One of her highlights, though, was being able to perform on the Shea’s stage two years ago when she filed in for an injured performer.

Pajak said she’s looking forward to another hometown show, not only for the thrill of performing in front of familiar fans but also for the fun that’s always etched on the youngest viewers’ faces.

“I can’t wait. Until you do it for the children and see their faces, you haven’t seen anything,” said Pajak, who sometimes sits in the audience when an understudy performs just to gague audience reaction. “The kids appreciate the simple things. If you screw up, they don’t care. They just love that you’re out there trying.”

Pajak figures she has another few years of trying her hand at dancing. That’s not to say she will settle down, though, as she thinks a backstage career might kick off once she hangs up her shoes.

“This job gets you. Once you’re in, you’re in,” she said. “Every show is completely different than the last. We actually care. We’re not going to put on a bad show ... The person who is Elmo wants to entertain your kids.”

IF YOU GO • WHAT: Performances of "Sesame Street Live: Elmo Makes Music" • WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday; 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. March 7-8; 10:30 a.m., 2 and 5:30 p.m. March 9; 1 and 4:30 p.m. March 10 • WHERE: Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St., Buffalo • MORE INFO: Call 847-0850 or visit