My life as an elf
With Christmas, come elves. There's Danny Elfman, and Jenna Elfman and Bodhi
Elfman. And my dad. And me.
I think we're the five most famous Elfmans in the world. Not that it's a well-populated
To be an Elfman is neither a blessing nor a curse, though it does figure into
our daily lives a lot. People laugh. They think it's cute, not sexy and never
threatening. I thought forever I had to be joyous and comical to live up to
We are constantly spelling it to people who don't want to believe their ears.
My mother and I respond by saying, "Elfman -- like Christmas and Santa
On the phone to strangers, my Dad explains, "If you could see me, you
could see how it's spelled."
Elves don't have to be short. Christmas elves are little. But "Lord of
the Rings" elves are tall, like Orlando Bloom's "Legolas." (Liv
Tyler's statuesque "Arwen" was a half-elf elfwoman.) The only common
denominator is pointy ears. None of us Elfmans has pointy ears.
An elf for all fables
Elf lore varies, nation to nation. Allegedly, I can make your
dreams come true, build you a Christmas toy, serve as a Norse god of nature,
give you mischievous nightmares, or wisely shoot and kill you with an arrow.
Pick your fable. I'm your elfman.
"Elfman" is a good icebreaker. The lightness of the name helps me
begin many an interview, but never so much as when I finally interview Danny,
his actor-nephew Bodhi and Bodhi's actress wife Jenna, star of "Dharma
& Greg." These conversations took a year and a half to set up, because
we're all so busy being famous, you know.
Of the five of us, Danny gets the most Google hits. He composes
movie music, especially for director Tim Burton, as well as the elf-decorated
The Nightmare Before Christmas. I track Danny down to tell him he's the
most famous Elfman in the world.
"Oh, my God. What a terrible weight to bear," he jokes.
Danny loves the name as a grown-up but didn't like it when he was a kid.
"I thought it was weird. I was called Elf and Elfie," he says. (Same
He never considered changing his name to something with more gravity for show
biz. (If the scribe had been named William Elfman, would "Romeo and Juliet"
smell as sweet?)
"I really liked it starting out" as a musician, Danny says. "By
the time I got to high school, everybody thought I'd already made up the name.
You know -- Elfman, red hair. ... I had to swear up and down it was my real
I'm the first Elfman Danny has encountered who isn't in his family circle.
"Are you kidding?" he says. "Tell me. Where do your people come
In the late 1800s, my Elfmans emigrated from Belarus, outside of Russia and
Poland, to Philadelphia and Scranton, Pa. Around the same time, the family of
Danny and Bodhi came from Russian and Poland and settled in Philadelphia, Chicago
and Kenosha, Wis.
The question I'm asked most in life is if Danny and I are related. We don't
know. (We do both play violin.) Dad's relatives told him every Elfman is related.
Is that an urban legend for a mythical breed? Dunno.
Bodhi looks at me and says, "You look a little like my pops."
Danny's best explanation for the cause of Elfman is "elf" means the
number 11 in German, even though none of us has German roots. We're Jews by
heritage; none of us seems to practice Judaism.
Danny has the idea that since "elf" means 11, a distant Elfman must
have been named for being the "11th man," which has Jewish significance.
"To start a [Jewish] ceremony, you need 10" people, he says. "And
my relative was the one that was always late -- the 11th guy, the one that wasn't
necessary to begin any Jewish ceremony. I like that. Why else would a Jew have
the name '11' when everything is based on 10?"
The funny-face factor
Dad thinks we're better-looking than most elf types: "You
don't have a funny-looking-enough face. Elves are funny-looking. I don't know.
That's what I think."
Dad's name is Bradley, but he became notable in 1984 for writing a New York
Times best seller under the pen name Mr. Fresh. He named his book Breakdancing:
Mr. Fresh and the Supreme Rockers Show You How to Do It! It's the masterpiece
of the how-to-break dance genre.
Dad's also a calligrapher, physicist and computer programmer who invented the
Elfman Emergency Calculator to help emergency relief workers quantify food menus
and shelter supplies for victims of disasters and poverty.
'Rings' vs. Christmas elves
Like "Lord of the Rings" elves, Dad is muscularly lean
with Popeye forearms. Like Christmas elves, Dad is short.
"I'm 5, 5? feet [tall]," Dad says. "I don't think I've made
5-6 yet, unless I'm standing really, really, really straight."
If people didn't brint up, Dad would barely think about his name. "When
I'm spelling it, it's just a bunch of letters," Dad says. "I never
knew much about elves and trolls and critters."
But it is obvious to all of us "elf" is in constant use one season
"When you're around Christmas and Christmas elves, you have to think about
it, right?" Dad says. "Naturally, whenever I hear 'elf' anything,
I'm there. So there's that big company in Europe called Elf ... It's one of
the giant corporations in the world.
"I should be able to take over the company, like they should go, 'Oh,
the Elf is here.' When I saw that movie 'Elf,' I thought I should have the rights
to that movie. I should be able to tell people to see it or not."
Like Elfman men everywhere, Dad has a good eye for women other Elfmans elf.
We discuss Jenna, and Dad says, "She's hot."
When Bodhi introduces me to Jenna, I tell him I've been proud of her for a
"Being an Elfman, you should," he says, and he presents me to her
thus: "Have you met my distant cousin, Doug Elfman?"
Jenna's last name was Butala until she married Bodhi on my birthday in 1995.
Upon meeting me, Jenna invokes a "Lord of the Rings" variation.
"I'm an Elfwoman," she says, studying me with magical
eyes suited to a mythical being, gracing a faraway kingdom, named Hollywood.
Copyright 2006 Sun-Times News Group