For three generations of children who grew up watching Shari Lewis and her simple sock puppet Lamb Chop convey music, playfulness and wise meaning, the passing of this unique and forever dynamic ventriloquist and puppeteer must mean an end to an era. Her PBS television shows and her home videos were like an island of sanity in a frenetically commercial ocean of children’s television with its animated violence and brain-dulling impact.
Fifty years of wholesome and instructional entertainment, which received 12 Emmy Awards, gave us a frame of reference for judging the gross exploitation of little children that corporate hucksters achieve day after day on television.
Several years ago, while having dinner with Ms. Lewis and her husband, publisher, Jeremy Tarcher, I asked why she was not on American television. “Animation,” she replied, it was cheaper for the companies to have animated cartoons than a sensitive, intuitive, kindly, interactive human mind.
Those were the years when she was off U.S. television but continued to do live appearances all over the country, write many of her 60 children’s books, compose many renditions and conduct orchestras.
In 1989, she created the PBS series “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along followed by The Charlie Horse Music Pizza” series. Whenever the children’s television merchants say that they’re giving kids what they want by way of low grade sensuality, violence and assorted junk productions, it was refreshing to rebut them with the life work of Shari Lewis who, given the media opportunity, drew the little children to her like butterflies to flowers.
Little children would remember and recount their experiences with Lamp Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy when they met other children or their parents.
Her versatility was astonishing. She wanted children to learn a musical instrument, believing that “musical training teaches something that is seldom learned in any other manner: namely, that if you stick to what you are trying to do, you will, eventually, ‘get it.'” She thought that learning how to use a musical instrument built neurological connections and better study habits.
So enter her creation — “Lamb Chop Loves Music.” Lamb Chop agreed to learn all the instruments and so a collection of instruments rose to give the audience of children an introduction to woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion. From Shari Lewis’ eclectic imagination came selections that she knew children would like — including the sounds of Mozart, Bizet, Beethoven and Stravinsky.
An appreciative article about Shari Lewis appearing in the Los Angeles Times had this to say: “You can find her love of music in all of her work: in the carefully composed, positive themes threaded through the bubbly humor, in her impeccable timing as a performer and in the rhythms of her give-and-take with the audience she understood so well, whatever the generation.”
“I like what I do,” Ms. Lewis said in an interview. “I won’t burn out. If you follow your heart, your heart sings and you just dance to that music.”
Not burning out was crucial to the classical career of Shari Lewis. She had to overcome many obstacles and disappointments and mindless exclusions (imagine the challenge for a female ventriloquist forty five years ago!) Her legacy is her irrepressible personality, her family and her many performances and writings that will live on to grace our culture and to shame the commercialism that overwhelms our children.