AMERICA'S EXTRAORDINARY VENTRILOQUIST STANDS BY HER LAMB AND A NEW PBS SERIES
Photo courtesy of Lewis & Lamb
Shari Lewis speaks out of both sides of her mouth and is proud of it. In fact, she makes her living at it.
Lewis, a ventriloquist, was first discovered on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show in 1952. Five years later, before a guest appearance on the Captain Kangaroo show with her cumbersome, wooden McCarthy-style dummy, it was suggested that the five-foot Lewis try using something smaller. Lamb Chop, the sassy sock puppet was born and has been entertaining fans for 40 years, along with her famous sidekicks, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy.
From the time she could walk, Lewis was performing. Her father, a Yeshiva University professor and New York's "official magician," passed on his penchant for magic. At the age of two, Lewis began to study piano with her mother, a music educator. Lewis later learned baton twirling, ice skating, acting, juggling, dancing, and ventriloquism, and attended the prestigious New York High School of Music and Art to develop further her talent with piano and violin.
For several years during the '60s, Lewis starred in her own musical-comedy television show, which ended when children's programming turned to animation. Since then, the multifaceted Lewis has performed on Broadway, in casinos, and night clubs, and has produced 60 children's books and many award-winning videos, audio cassettes, and CD-ROMs. One of few women conductors, she has performed with and conducted more than 100 symphony orchestras.
In 1992 the inimitable performer came full circle to star in her own PBS children's show, Lamb Chop's Play-Along, an Emmy winner for five consecutive years. She is currently in Vancouver shooting The Charlie Horse Music Pizza, to premiere January 5, 1998, on PBS-with co-stars Dom DeLuise and Wezley Morris-a fast-paced musical comedy series for the preschool set, filled with songs, riddles, knock-knock jokes, and stories.
Lewis, 63, has been married to publisher Jeremy Tarcher for nearly 40 years. They have one daughter, Mallory, who now works closely with her mom in the writing, production, and editing of the latest PBS shows.
Says Lewis of her puppetry in a Wall Street Journal interview, "We all have many characters within us. The lucky people are those who get a chance to be childish now and nurturing then and bold and vulnerable at other times. I just happen to have given them all names, and I talk to them.
Q: Tell me about the discovery of your ventriloquist talent.
A: Well, I was walking by a closet and Daddy heard my sister screaming to be let out. He opened the door, and my sister was nowhere to be seen. I had thrown my voice, and he thought this was just terrific.
Q: Is it a hard skill to learn?
A: I don't think you learn it. You either do it or you don't. You can learn to do it better. [A lot of musical ability] starts genetically. Musical ability is related to musical memory, and some people have different potential than others. Everybody can play an instrument, anybody can learn to sing, but I'm talking about doing it really well. But the reasons for doing music are not just in order to do it very well. Music contributes so much to the life of an individual, and I don't just mean the esthetics. Music training, music lessons, singing in a choir, playing in a band, add enormously to a child's self-confidence, to your sense of power over material that you don't know. If you study music, you learn that you can start on nothing, and if you stick to it, you'll get it.
Q: What are the latest scientific findings regarding the benefits of music education?
A: The findings show that pre-school children who get 15 minutes a week of private keyboard instruction, plus rote singing, at the end of eight months, have a 46 percent higher spatial IQ, and spatial IQ is the kind necessary for math and science. The difference in SAT marks between children who have studied a musical instrument a couple of years and those who haven't is clear and quite shocking. Learning an instrument teaches you how to learn.
Q: When did you realize that performing was your life's passion?
A: There's never been anything else. I started performing at 18 months. My parents were school teachers. They ran summer camps, and I was put on stage with a crepe-paper bow, and we have film evidence of it. My parents encouraged me to study everything from juggling and instruments to acting and singing and dancing.
Q: Of the many careers you've had, which do you enjoy
A: The most satisfying is working with the orchestras simply because you are then working with 104 super achievers. And these high achievers want nothing more than for you, as conductor, to make them good. They work with you in the most remarkable fashion and are examples of what music can do for people's self-esteem and work habits.
Q: What has been the most difficult time in your career?
A: Well, in '63 all of children's programming turned to animation. All of it. I was very fortunate that I had long-term contracts with The Sahara in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. So, although it was extremely difficult to know that my entire field had crashed around my ears, it was very interesting to move into the casinos. I opened for Jack Benny and Donald O'Conner and many other wonderful stars.
It was also devastating. I went to Great Britain in that same period and did 18 shows a year for BBC. In order to do my children's work, I had to leave the country...it was very saddening. The only bout with depression that I've ever had was at that period.
Q: What was your most unusual experience with Lamb Chop?
A: Lamb Chop is so much my alter ego that she sometimes gets out of hand and says things I wouldn't even dare think to myself. When she first met Desi Arnaz, he was sitting with his feet up on the table and was rather rude. She told him so in no uncertain terms. And that was the first time I really had to stay aware of what she was going to say, because she speaks for herself.
Q: Have you ever used Lamb Chop in a personal situation to deal with a challenge or win an argument?
A: No, no, no. When my first network show was canceled in '63, that was the only time I ever went to Lamb Chop and cried with her. But it hasn't happened since.
Q: What is your most memorable moment while taping television shows?
A: The really memorable things don't happen in a television studio. They happen under emergency circumstances-doing command performances, performing at the White House, or during those tense moments right before the Sullivan Show. [One of those times was] during a command performance. You're instructed not to say anything about the Queen, and Lamb Chop took off as soon as she saw the Queen. She started babbling about how amazed she was the Queen was bigger than her postage stamp, and she went on and on. They didn't lasso me and pull me off the stage.
Q: Has Lamb Chop's personality changed over the years?
A: No. She used to claim to be 3, now she's 6. Charlie Horse has really blossomed since this show [The Charlie Horse Music Pizza]. He's gotten warmer, which I hadn't expected. Charlie Horse is very brash, and the kids love him because he pushes the envelope. Well, he has gotten no less brash but more loving. At the end of the scene yesterday, he came and he kissed me. I was stunned because this has never happened before.
Q: When taping a show, are you performing all the voices at that moment, or do you dub them in?
A: Well, I only have two hands. So whenever there are two puppets on camera, I am doing two of them, but when there are three, I have magnificent puppeteers who are handling, and then I subsequently dub in the voice. I've never gotten around this limitation of mine. If I had been born that Indian goddess with six arms...it would be wonderful.
Q: What is your next project after The Charlie Horse Music Pizza wraps up?
A: Well, the wrapping up is only of the taping, then we are editing. My daughter and I are deeply involved in the editing process, which will take us until the end of December. In the meanwhile, I'm doing theater performances at the McKellum in Palm Springs and at the Orange County Music Center, and I do the Thanksgiving Day Parade as I do every year. And I'm doing the half-time show for the Aloha Bowl on ABC-TV on Christmas Day. And then I start the promotion for [The Charlie Horse Music Pizza].
Q: To what do you attribute all your energy and creativity?
A: There are two answers to that. For one thing, I come from a very energetic family, and I'm convinced that we are chemical and electrical beings, and a lot of our energy is programmed into our chemistry. In the second place, it's a habit. Because you come from an energetic family, you tend to be energetic from the time you're a baby. Besides, I really like what I do.
Q: What is your daily routine?
A: My routine is so different day to day, it's hard to set up any regime. Here [in Vancouver], I start at 6am and don't finish until 10pm, when I go to bed. This is a tough four months of taping. At home [in Beverly Hills], we have a trainer who comes in twice a week. Before our doggie died, we walked every morning. But doggie was walking us, and now that she's not here, we don't walk.
Q: What would others be surprised to learn about you?
A: The greatest surprise to me now is the delight with which I'm working with my daughter, who is creative supervisor, head writer, and producer of certain aspects of everything I do. It's just wonderful working with your family.
Q: What brings you pleasure outside of your work?
A: Being with my husband is a real joy. We are very different, and he enriches my life a lot with his interests. And we share many things. We love hiking; we love the outdoors.
Q: As we stand on the brink of the 20th century, would you say you are cynical or optimistic about the world today?
A: I read history a lot. And when you read the biographies from the Victorian period, they were horrified by what was happening to the world. I think that what will happen will be good and will be bad. It's certainly going to be more difficult. And it's certainly going to be easier in areas of health and communication.
Q: What does Lamb Chop think about aging?
A: At 6 she doesn't think very much. Charlie Horse said something funny the other day. Somebody asked him how did it happen that after all of these years he got his name above the title on one of my shows. And he said, "I changed agents."
Q: Is there something about aging that you take delight in or that you find particularly difficult?
A: Well, my skills are so much stronger than they were and my attitude is so much calmer. No matter what comes up, I can handle it, and that is really the product of having done it all so many times.
Life presents all kinds of challenges at whatever age it presents those challenges. I had breast cancer ten years ago. Having handled that, you get a sense that whatever comes you'll handle.