Lamb Chop's Shari Lewis Has More Talents Than You Can Shake a Stick At—and Conducting Is One

updated 05/23/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/23/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Long before the Muppets and Sesame Street, she was a famous TV puppeteer—the inventor and alter ego of such not-so-dummies as Lamb Chop and a kangaroo with the cutesy name of Captain Person. Her performances are highly professional, fast-paced, and she always seems to strike a warm rapport with her audiences of adults and children. She has also made her mark as a magician, dramatic actress, juggler, ventriloquist, chorus girl and Girl Scout troop leader. If that were not enough, she is a professional pianist, violinist and singer, a recording artist and the author of 22 craft and children's books on subjects ranging from origami to fairy tales.

To such an impressive array of talents, Shari Lewis has recently added yet another act, conducting symphony orchestras. And she does not deal in pop music, either: She leads small orchestras (the Erie Philharmonic) and big ones (the National Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony) through the intricacies of Brahms, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Her skill with a baton is impressive enough to have won her, in Washington last month, the Kennedy Center's annual award for excellence, an honor she shares with Sarah Caldwell and Gian Carlo Menotti.

Her current show, which she has performed all over the U.S., Canada and Britain, is a unique mix of symphonic music and her one-woman extravaganza, in which she trots out puppets from her TV glory days and dances with new, life-size dummies—including a fake Fred Astaire.

The pint-size (5', 95 pounds) Shari, 49, apparently inherited her talent. Her mother, an accomplished pianist, was music supervisor for the Bronx public schools. Her father, Abraham Hurwitz, was a professor of education at Yeshiva University and doubled as New York City's "official magician," by appointment of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Shari's talents were sharpened by endless rounds of lessons, including baton twirling, juggling, ice skating, seven years of violin and 18 of piano. Lewis says her father discovered her gift for ventriloquism when he heard a voice screaming to be let out of a closet in their Manhattan apartment. When he opened the door, there was no one inside. After that he took ventriloquist Shari to a Bronx park every Wednesday afternoon, where "in the winter sun I'd sit with John Copper, a 99-year-old black man who'd been a great vaudevillian. He'd give me voice-throwing lessons."

Shari was dancing in Broadway chorus lines by the time she was 13. At 17, she had won top honors on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, and soon she had her own TV show. When Saturday morning cartoons overwhelmed children's TV in the 1960s, Shari and her puppets faded from the tube along with Kukla, Ollie and Howdy Doody. But her career did not pause even for an intermission. "I went immediately into national companies of Broadway shows, such as Damn Yankees and Funny Girl, and then went on to Vegas, where I had my own act. I actually trebled my income during those years."

Shari got her stage name from her first husband, advertising executive Stan Lewis. That marriage ended badly, but her second, to West Coast book publisher Jeremy Tarcher, has proved more enduring; they celebrated their 25th anniversary last March. Tarcher has published two of Shari's books, but none by his best-selling sister, Judith Krantz. Shari and Jeremy live and work out of a lush Beverly Hills estate. Their daughter, Mallory, 20, is a student at Barnard College.

Friends and fans wonder what Shari and Lamb Chop will try next. After all, smiles Shari, "I am an entertainer."

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