If you’re a millennial or older, and especially if you’re a baby boomer, you must surely remember Shari Lewis. The multi-talented entertainer, along with her famous sock puppet Lamb Chop, may have been your babysitter, friend, and comfort during her astounding groundbreaking television career.
The beloved ventriloquist and pioneering female TV personality starred in various children’s programming from 1957 to 1999. Lewis and Lamb Chop sang, danced, entertained and educated their way into the hearts of children and their parents for more than four decades. Now this television icon is being celebrated in a new book, “Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop: The Team That Changed Children’s Television,” which is co-written by Shari’s daughter, Mallory Lewis, and Nat Segaloff.
The book is part biography and celebration of Lewis’ many talents and triumphs in the burgeoning broadcasting business. Of course, there weren’t many women behind the scenes back in the 1950s, but Lewis’ estimable skills in many realms helped her enter showbiz at an early age. At 13, she was already an accomplished performer, working as a magician, and a trained singer and dancer. She was groomed for showbiz by her parents. Her father Abraham “Doc” Hurwitz was dubbed the official magician of New York City by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia during the Depression. Her mother headed the music department in Bronx, New York, schools.
With focus and determination, the performer, who touched millions of lives with her gentle humor, launched her career. The puppeteer got one of her first breaks on the “Captain Kangaroo” show. Soon after, Lewis headlined her own show and made sure music was always tandem with her ventriloquism.
“Mom felt very strongly that music education is the foundation for a life of learning because it requires discipline, focus and hard work,” said Mallory Lewis, who would go on to describe not only her mother’s talents, but hard work in shaping her intellectual property.
“My mom was an entrepreneurial woman before women were entrepreneurs,” she said. “So many of the same problems exist today that existed when my mom was first starting. When my parents met, my mom was making 10 times what my father was making, and he had to sign for her to have a credit card. Women can now get their own credit cards, but the burden of child care, the mental burden of running a home still falls to women. My mom fought very hard against that.”
Lewis says the book is a wonderful way to get to know the “woman behind the curtain because she was equally interesting behind the curtain as she was on stage. She was a businesswoman, a mother, a wife, adventurer, a political activist.”
“Mom lived her life fairly privately because there was no social media then and because she was focused on the work,” Mallory Lewis explained. “People have a lot of misconceptions of who Shari Lewis was.”
On stage and on the small screen Shari Lewis was a formative figure in so many young lives. Her longevity in children’s programming allowed her fans and even their children to also be exposed to her gentle and informative entertainment that Mallory Lewis says her mother coined with the word “edutainment.”
Even today Mallory Lewis gets her mother’s fan mail on a daily basis.
“My mother was very special to people,” she said. “The stories are, ‘I had a difficult childhood and your mother was my one safe place.’ Or, ‘The whole family sat down and watched your mom on TV. It was one of the happy times every week when she came on.’ Or, ‘I had a crush on your mom.’ Good children’s performers remind us of when we felt safe and when the world was a simpler place.”
Mallory Lewis was working as head writer and producer on “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along” and “Charlie Horse Music Pizza” shows when the beloved entertainer died in 1998. It was shortly after that her look-a-like daughter decided to not step into her mother’s shoes; rather, she “stepped into her sock.”
“I couldn’t imagine a world where Lamb Chop was dead too,” Mallory Lewis said. “I loved being Lamb Chop’s sister. I wanted my son to have that joy and he did.”
Mallory Lewis and Lamb Chop now travel the world continuing the act. A Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop documentary is coming out in the spring directed by Lisa D’Apolito, who’s known for her documentary on comedian Gilda Radner.
Mallory Lewis can be found at mallorylewisandambchop.com and [email protected]
“Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop” will be available Oct. 18, wherever books are sold.