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.
As I 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 vaudeville circuit.
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 business.
In 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 Chop's Play-Along. 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 Off-Broadway Affair."
She guest-starred with Lamb Chop on an episode of The Nanny in 1995. 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 education.
She served on the national board of the Girl Scouts of America after leading her daughter's troop for five years.
She and her second husband of 40 years, Jeremy Tarcher, wrote an episode for the third and final season of the original Star Trek series entitled "The Lights of Zetar."
In 1986, she and her puppets entertained hundreds of youngsters from around the world at a White House Christmas party hosted by Nancy Reagan.
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. She 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."
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