Ladies and gentlemen . . . Elmo has left the auditorium.
Don't laugh. Elmo of "Sesame Street" may be just a furry red monster to you, but to thousands of screaming tots, he's bigger than the King. Not to mention a lot more humble.
Remember those phenomenally popular Tickle Me Elmo dolls that flew out of stores last Christmas? Now the Muppet is at the center of Sesame Street Live's "1-2-3 . . . Imagine!," the 90-minute stage spectacular that arrives today through Sunday at the Pond of Anaheim.
But fame hasn't spoiled Elmo's sweet disposition, says Sesame Street Live performance director Kim Gladman.
"He's just the same lovable little monster he always was," Gladman said by phone from Honolulu, where the tour was wrapping up a two-week stay.
Sesame Street Live writer Nancy Sans agrees. The character has appeal, she said by phone from her home in New York state, because he is "this irrepressible child that children love for his energy and his curiosity. Elmo thinks life is constantly interesting. He's the kind of guy you'd like for a friend."
This is the 17th tour for Sesame Street Live, which always features a raft of larger-than-life Muppet characters from the long-running public television series in a splashy stage show. It's loud, it's bright and it's busy. Adults may find it cloying at times, but little kids eat it with a spoon.
In "1-2-3 . . . Imagine!," Elmo, Big Bird, Ernie, Bert and the rest of the gang lead youngsters on an imaginary journey to all sorts of fantastic spots. Normally dour Bert dives into an undersea adventure in search of his famous cousin, Bubbles Cousteau. Ernie takes to the high seas, too, as a captain of his own ship. And Elmo? He's off to the jungles of deepest Africa to swing with his favorite pen pal.
The point, says Gladman, is to help children recognize that there is no limit to the places they can go in their imagination.
"We're telling kids that whatever you want to do, whatever you want to be in life, you can do it if you use your imagination," said Gladman, who has been associated with the tour since 1984.
As in other Sesame Street Live shows, most of the dialogue heard in "1-2-3 . . . Imagine!" is prerecorded by the same actors who provide the characters' familiar voices on the television show. Except when it comes to Sam the postman.
A new character to the stage show, Sam is a human who delivers the Muppet's mail. According to writer Sans, he also brings a higher level of interaction to the show.
"One of the most accessible parts of these shows is the audience participation," noted Sans. "The characters talk to the audience, but it's recorded, so . . . they can't respond to the kids in a spontaneous way. Sam can do that, and the kids like it a lot."
Sam's just passing through, however. Unlike Elmo and company, he's not scheduled to be a part of the Sesame Street gang for the long term, although Sans says a human character of some type will be featured in future Sesame Street Live scripts.
Sans, who has also written for TV's "Sesame Street" for 15 years, notes that it takes a long time for any character to earn a place in the gang and in youngsters' hearts. Characters evolve gradually through the joint efforts of the writers and the puppeteers (or, more accurately, Muppeteers). Most put in years on the television show before they even show up in the stage show, she says.
One notable exception is Frances, a physically disabled girl Muppet who was created for the stage show and quietly introduced to live audiences this year.
"We didn't want to make a big deal out of it, but we felt it was time to include a character in a wheelchair," explained Sans, adding that the "Sesame Street" TV show has a human character who uses a wheelchair.
"Frances and the other characters play together, so our hope is that kids in the audience see this and realize that people who are a little different should never be left out."
Sesame Street Live's "1-2-3 . . . Imagine!" at the Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. 7 p.m. today; 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Fri.; 10:30 a.m., 2 and 5:30 p.m. Sat.; 1 and 4:30 p.m. Sun. $10.50-$17. (714) 704-2500 or (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).