BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
Before I met Shari Lewis, I was under the impression – probably like a lot of people – that she was just a popular children’s entertainer; a ventriloquist with a cute sock puppet named Lamb Chop. To my surprise, I discovered she was much more: a trained musician who played violin and conducted symphony orchestras, an actor-dancer who had done Broadway musicals on tour, and a published book author and newspaper columnist. If she had to settle for one career, she said, it would be as a writer. But she was doing it all.
We spoke just before Lewis was due to perform a Christmas show with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. She had taken up conducting a few years earlier, mainly because of the encouragement of her music director, a man whose real name – Stormy Sacks – sounded like it might belong to one of her puppets. “Mother used to say that, for me, music was a vaccination that didn’t take,” said Lewis. “My great joy has always been solfeggio (sight-reading exercises) and musical theory. But the orchestra is now my instrument.”
Was she nervous when she did her first orchestral gig, with the Dallas Symphony? “Facing the Stravinsky score was more of a challenge than stepping up in front of the musicians,” she replied. “When I looked at it, I realized it would be a real challenge for me to communicate this. But once I got to the podium I knew just what I had to do.”
How did she deal with the fact that an audience, especially the youngsters, would expect her to be funny? “I do the comedy first,” she said. “I bring on Lamb Chop and we do some kibitzing. Once that’s out of the way, I pick up the baton. The music is lively, light classics that are fun to play, but I do them straight. The idea is to show the kids that the neat thing about music is being able to play it.”
Exposing children to the joy of music was one of Lewis’s goals in life. Another was exposing them to the joy of reading. She had written 21 children’s books and was writing a syndicated column, Kids-Only Club, that appeared six days a week in 67 newspapers across North America.
The aim of the column, Lewis said, was to get children into the habit of regularly reading a newspaper. “A lot of kids have grown up with the idea that a newspaper is something you use for training a dog. If the kids can be seduced into opening the paper at the same place each day, a valid hope is that they will find something that will seduce them into reading a little further.” Her column, she said, was “all about the things kids want to do without parents telling them how to do it. Kids really want to feel like they’re worth something, and yet they’re often treated like useless beings-in-waiting. They have a lot to offer. Kid power is a very wasted commodity.”
Her own involvement with children began long before Lewis became a mother herself, at age 29. “I never played teacher and I never played parent,” she said. “Being a parent caused one to deliver from the Mount rather than as a friend. All those years before I became a parent, I was a companion big sister to the kids. I was an older playmate. That was just as valid.”
She had been performing since she was 15. Her career began in 1948 when she appeared on a local television show in her native New York and pulled a rabbit out of a hat. Her father, a college professor who doubled as New York’s “official magician” during the Depression, had taught her the trick only the day before. Her father also arranged for her to learn ventriloquism from a former vaudevillian when Shari demonstrated a natural talent in that area. She told me her parents were now retired to Fort Lauderdale, where her father – at age 75 – was teaching magic to fellow seniors “to make them more interesting to their grandkids.”
Lewis said her big break came in 1952 when her puppetry won first prize on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts television show. Five years later, she introduced Lamb Chop on Captain Kangaroo. For six years after that, Lewis was a regular on American network television. She hosted her own Saturday-morning show on NBC between 1960 and 1963. When the show ended, she kept busy by acting with touring companies and singing in nightclubs.
She still had a high profile when I spoke with her in 1980. She had appeared in numerous television specials and made guest appearances on variety shows seen in Canada, the United States and Britain. She was also doing prestigious live gigs such as a recent White House Christmas party for President Jimmy Carter, his family, and 600 invited guests. Was she nervous? “Not at all,” she replied. “I get more excited performing for the Royal Family. With the president, you know in the back of your head that if they don’t like you, four years later there’s going to be somebody else there anyway.”
I asked her if she had any more television projects in the works. Lewis said she had taped a special for the CTV network with Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, but it wouldn’t be seen for another year. “I feel like a fish spawning babies and never knowing where they’re going to surface again.” In the meantime, she was planning to launch a children’s book and audio-cassette series called One Minute Stories, which would include bedtime stories, fairytales, Bible stories, Greek myths, Easter stories, Jewish stories, and so on.
Her show in Calgary was a delight. “It’s like a trip to Disneyland,” I wrote in my review. “You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy it, but it probably helps.” Her conducting showed that she knew how to read a score, and when to give the musicians their cues. Her patter showed that she knew how to communicate with kids without talking down to them.
When she left town, Lewis continued to tour, conduct orchestras, write books and columns, and do television specials, for the next several years. In 1992, at age 59, she returned to network television with a show on PBS, Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, which encouraged kids to get up off the couch and cavort around the living room tormenting their parents with nonstop renditions of the show’s sign-off song, “This Is The Song That Doesn’t End.” The show brought her Emmys as outstanding performer in a children’s series, five seasons in a row.
In January 1998, Lewis brought a new children’s show to PBS, The Charlie House Music Pizza, in which she showed children how to make music with such ordinary household items as balloons and spoons and empty tuna cans. However, five months after the show started airing, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and had to curtail production. She died in August 1998 at age 65. The U.S. Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley, praised her accomplishments as an educator. “By combining humour with teaching and entertainment,” he told The New York Times, “Shari taught us we can laugh and learn at the same time.”
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2014
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