She has survived by heeding a simple credo: To endure in show business, you must be ready to go out of fashion a lot.
And yet Shari Lewis will tell you that she never went out of fashion. She may have left your television for 30 years. She may have gone to the desert to open for Jack Benny. She may even have branched out into origami, Japanese paper folding.
But she’s been there, always, doing as her mama taught her growing up in the Bronx: Polish your lantern and others will follow the light.
To Lewis, that didn’t mean, honey, just keep your figure and tap your heart out, it meant be true to yourself. And to understand that there are more ways to survive than there are survivors.
In all those between years - years in which Lewis did syndicated, British and Canadian TV, conducted 100 symphony orchestras, wrote three leading texts on origami and took her act to home video - she watched the changing fashions of entertainment.
In the end, maybe she didn’t change so much as the times did. Her gentle puppeteering, her soft lessons about hard choices in life, her belief that children can learn without being forced to finally found a place on public television in the ‘90s. Now, she plays to children who do not simply watch TV for entertainment but need TV for education and who want TV for comfort.
Lewis, in this her umpteenth incarnation in show business, has endured to teach yet another generation of children. She has waited, if not exactly in the wings, to rise, at nearly 60, to buzz-bomb our children with as much fun and as much activity as they - and PBS can stand early in the morning.
The now daily dose of “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along” is nonstop Shari Lewis, replete with silly jokes and snappy songs, ventriloquism and storytelling, tap dancing and credos to live by.
There is even the occasional bit of paper-folding.
“Play-Along,” which debuted on public television in 1992, has beaten “Sesame Street” twice to its coveted Emmy for children’s programming. It has made a 38-year-old idea - a beguiling sheep in lamb’s clothing - into a merchandising bonanza.
And it has returned the polish to the star who was born Phyllis Hurwitz, the first daughter of a magician dad and a mom who thought a girl ought to be able to juggle if she wanted to succeed in life.
Phyllis took the name Shari early on and nobody at her house apparently called her Phyllis again.
Lewis’ mother was a music coordinator for the New York City public schools. Her father was an educator at Yeshiva University and the city’s “official magician.”
Her childhood was gloriously overbooked, first with lessons in 11 instruments, in baton twirling, magic, acrobatics and ventriloquism. The first time she threw her voice, her father thought her baby sister was locked in a closet screaming. She performed at summer camp and at USO shows.
And once, when her father took on helping troubled children who stuttered, puppets came to live at her house. Her first act included a lifesize dummy, her second dummy smoked cigars.
She got into the High School for Music and Art. She won a round of Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts.” She did commercials. She got on local television doing “The Big Top” with Ed McMahon in Philadelphia and a 15-minute TV program called “Facts ‘N Fun” in New York.
A guest on “Today” and “Tonight,” she hosted the local “Kartoon Klub,” “Shari & Her Friends,” and “Shariland.” At the same time she was doing “Shariland,” she was doing a sitcom called “Hi Mom.” While still a teenager, she managed to find time to marry a man named Lewis and dropped him as quickly.
In 1957, Shari Greenjeans came to “The Captain Kangaroo Show.” Somebody there suggested she bring along a friend who wouldn’t be as wooden as her clunky dummy. Buttons and fluff, Lamb Chop was born, fully formed and ready to step on stage.
She had found herself in Lamb Chop, she says. “All I have to do is get out of Lamb Chop’s way. I’m glad I met her.”
Lewis says she can enter into a conversation with the puppet and be genuinely surprised by what the lamb says.
In 1960, NBC offered up “The Shari Lewis Show,” the first nonstop Shari-a-thon. Three years later, Lewis was pushed off the air by changing tastes and a network that believed that Alvin and the Chipmunks could do what she did and for less money.
Then came her second marriage, to book publisher and sometimes collaborator Jeremy Tarcher. They have a daughter, Mallory, who once told a documentary maker that Lamb Chop was the perfect sister: “She works very hard, earns a ton of money and stands to inherit nothing.”
Says Lewis of her own mothering style: “I made mistakes I wouldn’t make now. But now, I’d simply make different mistakes.”
Four days after Mallory was born, Lewis went back to work.
Then came the syndicated series, the symphony work, the 10-year hitch in Las Vegas where she did an adult Lamb Chop for wholesome adults. She toured in national companies of “Funny Girl” and “Damn Yankees.”
In 1984, she battled breast cancer and is healthy now.
Never one to let the entertainment train pass her by, Lewis caught the home video market as it was leaving the station in the ‘80s and now has more than 20 videos on the market. She also has written 60 Lamb Chop books, developed a sitcom and is putting the finishing touches on a feature-film Lamb Chop script.
Three years ago, PBS welcomed “Play-Along” alongside its regular lineup of fuzzy things and talking trains. By all accounts, it was a grand fit.
“I don’t have to love everything on public TV,” says Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children’s Television. “I think Barney, for example, is a benign, warm show. But I don’t think it has the incredible intelligence infusing it that Shari’s show does.”
Adds Charren: “Shari understands that it takes more than multicolored bears to teach diversity.”
These days, Lamb Chop’s white fleece is about as common as the big purple dinosaur’s. In addition to children’s toys and puppets, she’s on bed linen, night lights, underwear and calendars.
And know this as well about Lewis: She owns it all, having retained licensing rights, thus assuring that, in perpetuity, everywhere the lamb went, Shari was sure to go.
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