My memories are vague and the details are sparse, but we couldn’t
have been more than six or seven, and there we were, sitting in the
infamous Grant Lee Theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey, waiting for the
show to begin.
The theater was on a side street, near the old trolley
tracks. My dad had told us stories about taking the trolley when he
was a teen from where he grew up in Union City, New Jersey, to this
location. Now, the trolley tracks were just tracks without a trolley.
The Grant Lee Theater’s claim to fame was that it was the
theater where X-rated films were shown. This was in 1960, so the fact
that this type of theater even existed in the small bedroom community
was unusual. What was more unusual was that the Grant Lee Theater was
also going to be where Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop would put on their
show for excited young boys and girls on this Sunday morning.
said, I remember few details. I was dressed up. All of the children
were wearing their best outfits for the show. That’s how it was
back then. People got dressed up. My dad somehow got me backstage to
meet Shari Lewis. She let me pat Lamb Chop. And that’s where my
memories end. I’m not even sure if they are memories or
memories of what I was told afterward.
Later, the Grant Lee Theater
closed down and small shops opened in its place including my favorite
salon and a pharmacy. The trolley tracks were covered with a
sidewalk. Property values increased. I don’t even know if the
Grant Lee Theater showed x-rated films. It is just what we were told
back then. And we were so young.
I’m sure I continued watching Shari Lewis on our black and
white TV. Then, I grew up and forgot about her until I had children
of my own who watched her on more up-to-date shows.
Shari Lewis (Sonia Phyllis Hurwitz) was born on January 17, 1933.
Her parents were both educators and her father was a founding member
of Yeshiva University in New York City. Her father was a locally
famous magician who taught her magic tricks.
Her parents encouraged
her to learn whatever she could and then they encouraged her to
perform. She received instruction in acrobatics, juggling, piano,
baton twirling, and violin. She learned ventriloquism from John W.
Cooper, the first black ventriloquist on the predominantly white
She learned piano and violin at New York’s
School of Music and Art, dance at the American School of Ballet, and
acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse. She attended Columbia
University for one year, and then left college to go into show
1952, Shari Lewis and her puppetry won first prize on the Arthur
Godfrey's Talent Scouts
television show. She was using a
full-sized ventriloquist's dummy named Samson. She soon developed the
sock-puppet character of Lamb Chop when she was advised to find a
character more suited to her five-foot tall frame.
In 1956, she and Lamb Chop were on The
Captain Kangaroo Show.
After that one appearance, she had her own television show, The
Shari Lewis Show,
on NBC, in 1960.
The show featured such characters as Lamb Chop, Hush Puppy, Charlie
Horse, and Crowie. Her show,
which was geared toward very young children in a musical-comedy
format, was both entertaining and educational. Where other puppet
shows popular in early TV yelled and bopped each other on the head,
Shari Lewis' characters were quiet and calm, always looking to the
adult, Shari, for guidance.
Lewis spoke to children gently, but she
was never condescending or belittling. It was the one show parents
could sit down and watch with their children. Despite her success, in
1963, all of children's programming turned to animation. Shari’s
show went off the air, and she spent a short time as an opening act
for the likes of Jack Benny and
Donald O’Connor at The Sahara
in Las Vegas and in Lake Tahoe.
She also performed on Broadway in New
York. In order to continue with children’s programming, she had
to go to Great Britain where she did 18 shows a year for the BBC from
1968 to 1976.
Her holiday specials in the 1980s and 1990s became
public TV perennials: Shari's
Christmas Concert, Lamb Chop in the Haunted Studio,
and Lamb Chop's Special Chanukah. Her
shows were eventually brought back to television in the United States
and were very successful.
Among Shari Lewis’
other achievements are the following:
She won the Peabody Award and twelve Emmy
awards, including five for her last PBS series, Lamb
She was the guest star in an
episode of The
Man From U.N.C.L.E in
1966, playing a ditsy understudy in the episode, “The
guest-starred with Lamb Chop on an episode of The
She wrote more than 60 children’s books
and created audio cassettes and home videos, including a CD-ROM in
1995 called Lamb Chop Loves Music.
She believed firmly that early
music instruction was a key element in the success of a child’s
She served on
the national board of the Girl Scouts of America after leading her
daughter's troop for five years.
and her second husband of 40 years, Jeremy Tarcher, wrote an episode
for the third and final season of the original Star
entitled “The Lights of Zetar.”
1986, she and her puppets entertained hundreds of youngsters from
around the world at a White House Christmas party hosted by Nancy
In addition to
winning her Emmys and Peabody Award, she also won the John F.
Kennedy Center Award for Excellence and Creativity, seven Parents’
Choice Awards, the Action for Children’s Television Award, the
1995 American Academy of Children’s Entertainment award for
Entertainer of the Year, the
Dor L'Dor award of the B'nai B'rith, 3 Houston Film Festival awards,
the Silver Circle Award of the National Academy of Television Arts
and Sciences, the Film Advisory Board Award of Excellence, 2
Charleston Film Festival Gold Awards, the Houston World Festival
silver and bronze awards, the New York Film and Video Festival
Silver Award, and the Monte Carlo Prize for the World's Best
Television Variety Show.
performed with and conducted more than 100 symphony orchestras.
Shari Lewis, a breast cancer survivor of more
than ten years, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in June of 1998.
Two months later, while undergoing chemotherapy, she developed viral
pneumonia. Shari Lewis died on August 2, 1998. The official
announcement of her death took great pains to note that she was
"survived by her beloved family of characters, Lamb Chop,
Charlie Horse, and Hush Puppy." Her daughter, Mallory, who
worked with her parents as a producer of Shari Lewis productions,
resumed her mother's
work with the Lamb Chop character two years after her death.
When interviewed by the Wall
Street Journal, Shari
Lewis stated, “We all have
many characters within us. The lucky people are those who get a
chance to be childish now, and nurturing then, and bold and
vulnerable at other times. I just happen to have given them all
names, and I talk to them.”