Yesterday & Today
The Voice of Lamb Chop
Ventriloquist Shari Lewis and her sidekick, a white wool puppet named Lamb Chop, won the hearts of generations of children who tuned in to her television shows.
By Jocelyn Selim
Shari Lewis was only 18 years old when she made a name for herself in 1952 as a winning contestant on the popular television show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a 1950s precursor to American Idol. After that early success, the young puppeteer and ventriloquist worked in local children’s television in New York City, until, in 1956, she appeared on Captain Kangaroo, a nationally syndicated children’s television series. But the show’s producers didn’t like the large puppets the diminutive entertainer used in her act.
Shari Lewis performs with Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse | Photo © Esther Bubley / Getty
“Before they booked me, they came to me and said, ‘Your dummies are so big and clunky, you’re 5 feet tall, don’t you have anything that’s dainty?’ ” Lewis recalled in a 1997 newspaper interview. She did have one thing: a homemade sock puppet depicting a sheep with absurdly long eyelashes that a friend had created after her father joked, “If Mary had a little lamb, why shouldn’t Shari have one, too?”
To see if it would be a good match, Lewis spent an hour before the mirror improvising routines with the puppet, which she named Lamb Chop. “It was quite clear. [Lamb Chop] just came to life like no puppet I had ever worked with before,” she said. Lamb Chop was an instant hit on Captain Kangaroo, and that break led to another local TV show in New York City, Shariland, for which she netted two Emmy Awards in 1957.
Lamb Chop, Lewis’ perpetually inquisitive and frequently smart-aleck sidekick, was so popular that NBC gave Lewis her own network show from 1960 to 1963. The Shari Lewis Show was essentially a one-woman program featuring the puppets Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy. Its playfulness and gentle humor appealed both to parents and children, making Lewis and Lamb Chop trusted icons for the preschool set.
A Natural Performer
Lewis attributed most of her success to her parents.
Born Shari Hurwitz on Jan. 17, 1934,
to a father who was an amateur magician and a mother who was an accomplished pianist, she grew up in the Bronx section of New York City during the Great Depression. Lewis’ parents encouraged her natural desire to perform, paying for lessons in everything from ballet to ventriloquism. “My first memory of my momma is her never putting me down,” Lewis once said. “I really had a sense of being cherished, and that is the greatest gift she gave me.”
According to Lewis’ daughter, Mallory, her only child from a 46-year marriage to publisher Jeremy Tarcher, “My mother really valued childhood, and that came through in everything she did. But she also had this very focused, very driven need to succeed—she was one tough lady.”
Lewis’ toughness was tested time and again in her adult life. After cartoons became popular on Saturday morning television, her show was canceled in 1963. Lewis was devastated. “All of it … my entire field crashed around my ears,” she said. But she kept performing, doing her act for adult audiences in Las Vegas casinos and opening for stars like comedian Jack Benny. She also moved to England to do 18 shows a year for the BBC. “In order to do my children’s work, I had to leave the country … it was very saddening,” she said. “The only bout with depression that I’ve ever had was at that period.”
Lewis persevered with her puppets. By 1975, she was again doing children’s programming in the United States with The Shari Show
, which included her typical mix of Lamb Chop, learning and fun. But in 1984, Lewis faced a breast cancer diagnosis. She immediately took control of the situation, closely questioning her doctors and determining her treatment plan. While some of her doctors recommended a mastectomy, Lewis did her own research and opted instead for a lumpectomy, radiation and taking tamoxifen, a drug that blocks the cancer-promoting effects of estrogen on breast tissue.