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Shari and Lamb Chop Tells Story of TV Pioneer
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Sunday, February 25, 2024
 

STORY BY KAREN BOSSICK

COURTESY PHOTOS

Shari Lewis and her sock puppet named Lamb Chop riveted generations of children. But the TV host was much more than a children’s entertainer.

She was a symphony conductor who conducted major symphonies in the United States, Canada and Japan. She wrote an episode of the “Star Trek” series, in addition to writing 60 books for children. And she guest starred in such shows as “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “Love, American Style” and “Car 54, Where Are You?”

Shari Lewis’ story is told in the new documentary “Shari & Lamb Chop,” directed by an Emmy Award winning director Lisa D’Apolito and produced by Naomi McDougall Jones, the artistic director of The Liberty Theatre Company in the Wood River Valley.

The film will receive one of its first screenings at the Sun Valley Film Festival, which runs Wednesday through Sunday, Feb. 28-March 3. The documentary will screen at 4:30 p.m. Friday, March 1, at the Sun Valley Opera House. For tickets, see https://sunvalleyfilmfestival.org/.

D’Apolito stumbled upon Lewis’ story after she finished her 2018 documentary about comedian Gilda Radner titled “Love, Gilda.”

“I’m always looking for interesting female comedians and entertainers—I love to find really talented people whose talents are not as well known as they should be,” said D’Apolito, who lives in New York. “Lewis was the best ventriloquist of all time—what she could do with puppets was akin to Abbott and Costello. I thought she deserved to have a movie made about her.”

Lewis’ daughter Mallory gave D’Apolito access to her mother’s friends, and the magician David Copperfield had all of the ventriloquist’s archival materials, including TV shows no one had ever seen.

She learned that Lewis was born Phyllis Naomi Hurwitz. Her father Abraham, a native of Lithuania, was a professor at Yeshiva University in New York and a gifted magician whom Mayor Fiorello La Guardia dubbed “New York City’s official magician” during the Great Depression.

“Her father was known as Peter Pan the Magic Man. He was a professor of math but also a magician,” said D’Apolito.

As a child, Shari learned acrobatics and how to juggle and twirl a baton.

“Her mother was head of music at Bronx School so Shari was also a violinist, pianist and dancer,” said D’Apolito. “Shari grew up in a colorful household where she was exposed to magicians and puppeteers and ventriloquists. It was the age of vaudeville so she was exposed to all the vaudeville entertainers.”

Lewis was 20 in 1953 when she broke into TV with a variety show that encompassed craftmaking, songs, informational segments, interviews with personalities and two ventriloquist dummies.

She created Lamb Chop, a sassy alter-ego for herself, for Captain Kangaroo in 1956, and NBC gave her her own show, “The Shari Lewis Show,” in 1960, replacing The Howdy Doody Show. The “Shari Lewis Show” ran until September 1963, during which time Lewis won 12 Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award.

But Lewis didn’t cater just to children. Over five decades she also made forays into the adult world, with late-night talk show performances and an adult version of her show that took Lamb Chop to Las Vegas.

“She was also in ‘Playboy after Dark’—not without her clothes on,” said D’Apolito.

Shari often used her puppets to say things women couldn’t say at the time, D’Apolito said. In 1962, for instance, she taped a scene where Hush Puppy alluded to being president of the United States and Lamb Chop retorted: “You can’t be president. You’re a girl.”

But Lewis’ success with Lamb Chop was both a blessing and a curse, D’Apolito said.

“From what I heard when I interviewed people, Lamb Chop was the best thing that ever happened to her and worst thing that ever happened. Some said she might have been the next Judy Garland if people hadn’t so identified her with her puppets.”

Naomi McDougall Jones said she grew up watching “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along.”

“My mother didn’t allow us to have television/cable, but we had a VHS tape of a season of that show and I watched it over and over,” she said. “Shari and Lamb Chop were such a huge part of my growing up, but I had absolutely no idea how truly amazing Shari Lewis was until meeting Lisa and working on this film. Whether you know Shari’s work or not, this film will bring you into the world of a true pioneer in the arts and one of the greatest ventriloquists of all time. Her abilities are truly astonishing.”

The film debuted in Santa Barbara International Film Festival this month. It will be shown in Atlanta on Monday before coming to Sun Valley.

D’Apolito, whose sister has homes in Boise and Sun Valley, said she’s excited about the Sun Valley Film Festival.

“My sister says it’s a great festival, that there’s a lot to do. I’m excited to see other films, meet other directors, partake in the parties, happy hours, all kinds of events. It seems packed with a lot of fun things,” she said. And it’s not as big as the Santa Barbara Festival, which shows 225 films, so I can get to know people.”

D’Apolito is also excited to gauge the response of the audience after having worked on the film for four years.

“It takes so long to do a film, it’s nice to be able to see it with an audience, see what resonates with the audience, what makes them laugh, what gets them emotional. Shari Lewis had such positive messages—basically, be the best you can be, and you can do anything you want if you just believe in yourself.”

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