The 13-second video begins with a burst of smoke and flames shooting from a Kensington scrapyard. Stepping into the frame, a giant, loose-limbed Elmo leads a two-man drum line — in the eyes of some of the iPhone clip's 750,000 viewers on Twitter, the essence of weird Philly.
"Is Philly even a real place?" one viewer tweeted of the surreal scene. A blog compared the moment to the work of the filmmaker David Lynch.
There was something very Philadelphia about a small drum line with a gangly Sesame Street character providing a soundtrack to a four-alarm environmental hazard. But there was another Philadelphia story behind all this: This Elmo, born William Fulton, has been struggling with housing insecurity for roughly a year and a half. There was a warrant out for his arrest — he'd failed to report for probation. The day after the fire, police grabbed him, and he has been sitting in jail since he went viral.
"I'm resting my bones," Fulton said at Philadelphia's Alternative and Special Detention Facility, where he greeted his first visitor in the month he's been behind bars. The North Philadelphia native is 29 and a father to two young children. He's won some notoriety on State Road for his role playing the furry red Muppet with the squeaky voice. Other inmates ask the 6-foot-4 Fulton to dance. He won't. Not there, he says.
The night of July 11, the three, who are members of the Positive Movement drum line, were on their way to drop off equipment when they approached the fire. Tony Royster, founder of the group, had his doubts about performing there, but the other two pushed — with a crowd gathering, they'd have a pre-made audience, and hopefully, donations.
Fulton is aware from phone calls with loved ones that something with him marching that night flew across the internet. At the jail, he asked why the video posted by Rocco Avallone, a photojournalist, had become so popular. In an era where it's commonplace for the stars of viral moments to attempt to capitalize on the mercurial luster of internet notoriety, Fulton can hardly plug his brand.
Questions over compensation for the video have become a long-lingering hurt for Fulton, another round of disappointment. In jail, he hasn't had the will to conjure the comical version of Elmo he crafted five years before while thinking of what he missed growing up without his father, moving in and out of juvenile placement. Rather, he's the man who, after a breakup and time away from his young children, gloomily concedes that the mask hid his pain.
Aside from his performances, Fulton works for a fruit juice company, only earning enough to live day to day. He used to sell bootleg DVDs near 54th and Arch Streets. That's how he caught a case.
Since getting arrested for selling bootlegged movies in 2012, Fulton has been in the system. He stopped reporting to his probation officer to avoid failing a drug test. Marijuana, he said, eased his stress. Pennsylvania registers the third-highest rate of adults under parole or probation supervision in the country, according to an April 2018 report from Columbia University's Justice Lab. The commonwealth's tallies stand among the highest "in the Western world," the report stated.
Fulton's friend Taurean "Ron" Lowry invited him to dress up as a character for a children's party on the Delaware riverfront. Fulton was too tall for a SpongeBob costume. The Elmo costume felt, he said, like magic, or a first pair of Jordans. He joined forces with Positive Movement last year, after Royster had the idea that life-size characters would get the group hired for more kids' events.
At his probation hearing last month, Fulton said he needed some help. "What I really need is a fresh start," he testified. "This time I will go to a program."
Even so, Fulton isn't sure he should be serving time. His hearing began unusually: Michael Welch of the Defender Association was not in the courtroom when Municipal Court Judge Bradley K. Moss wanted to begin, so he instructed a summer intern to get started. Legal experts say that violated the Sixth Amendment and could be viewed as a denial of counsel. Welch arrived shortly after the judge called on the intern, which, legal experts noted, would make a reversal of the sentence unlikely. Moss sentenced Fulton to two to four months in confinement.
On the inside, Fulton spends his time dreaming up what he could do to take his Elmo act to the next level. To top the fire, he quipped, they'd need a backdrop of a hurricane or tornado.
When Royster asked Avallone if there was any way the drum line could be compensated for the video, he replied that "it went low-key viral, but I haven't made much money from it." He gave Royster permission to use his photos from that night. (The Inquirer and Daily News paid $125 to license the video from the distribution firm Avallone engaged.)
In Fulton's frustrations, both Jenna Loadman, an intellectual property attorney at Ballard Spahr, and Kevin J. Greene, a leading expert on the intersection of race and intellectual property, see questions that are native to the digital era. American copyright laws predate the rapid-fire, highly shareable publication modes of viral content, and while these statutes were designed to protect artistry, they may lack sensitivity to creative processes that may be associated with African Americans, like communal cultural production of a drum line.
"Somehow," Loadman explained, "intellectual property benefits the creation and fixation of being in the right place in the right time, rather than the creative expression."
Greene measures that Royster and Thomas could make a legal challenge for their likenesses being used, but not Fulton, because he doesn't own Elmo's face.
Fulton isn't worried about that. He's thinking that maybe the video gets him a job at Sesame Place. When he's released, he plans on heading to a shelter. He says he's been working on getting himself together for the sake of his children, Harmony, 3, and Josiah, 1.
He hasn't seen the video that made him the talk of Twitter. He knows it was an absurd, raw, widely shared moment. He missed it.