November 02, 1998 12:00 PM

In the three decades since the sunny day—clouds having been swept away—when Sesame Street first appeared on television, the PBS series has touched more children than could ever be tabulated by a certain Count von Count. As it begins its 30th season in November, some of the show’s Muppeteers themselves can recall being kids when they first laid eyes on the 8’2″ Big Bird, perhaps the show’s most endearing creation. As a girl in Mexico City, Carmen Osbahr was so taken by the Mexican version, Plaza Sesamo, she resolved to someday work with the Muppets. Says Osbahr, now the voice and hand behind Rosita, a furry bilingual monster: “I can’t imagine this world without Sesame Street.”

She’s not alone. Series originator Joan Ganz Cooney, who launched the show on Nov. 10, 1969, envisioned Sesame as a brightly colored vehicle for teaching inner-city kids their ABC’s and numbers, as well as cooperation and tolerance. The most influential children’s show ever, it has been broadcast in a total of 141 countries (that includes 19 foreign coproductions). With an American audience of 11 million each week, it has won a record 71 Emmys. Over the years more than 250 celebrities have stopped by, including Rosie O’Donnell (as Oscar the Grouch’s fairy godmother), Susan Sarandon and Robin Williams. “Sesame Street,” says Fran Brill, the puppeteer for girl monster Zoe, “is the gold standard. It keeps going and going and going.”

Even through tragedy. After Will Lee, who played general-store owner Mr. Hooper, died at age 74 in 1982, the character passed away as well. “It helped children get past the deaths of their grandparents,” says Emilio Delgado, who since 1971 has played Luis, owner of the Fix-It Shop. The show, which is taped in Queens, N.Y., also survived the loss of Jim Henson, the gentle genius who brought to the show his menagerie of Muppets and who died unexpectedly of pneumonia at age 53 in 1990. “But with the people he trained, we managed to go on,” says Delgado. “I always get the feeling that he’s looking at us and saying, ‘I wouldn’t have done it that way, but it will work.’ ”

Henson’s Muppets—Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Kermit the Frog, Grover and the Count—remain the warm fuzzies at the heart of Sesame. And then some. Two Christmases ago a shortage of Tickle Me Elmo dolls—Elmo is the gleeful red-furred one—caused parental panic at toy stores. “That got out of hand,” says Elmo’s puppeteer, Kevin Clash.

But on television the show’s poise and purpose are evident. “Sesame Street is very pure,” says Steve Whitmire, the voice behind Kermit and Ernie. “It’s about doing something really positive for children. It’s a magical place to work.”

Tom Gliatto

Cynthia Wang and Patricia Keith in New York City

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