Mild and Wooly
Lamb Chop's secret, of course, is Shari Lewis, the indomitable force behind a family-oriented entertainment empire. Baby boomers remember Lewis as the perky puppeteer whose NBC's Shari Lewis Show (1960-1963) featured Lamb Chop and fellow hand puppets Hush Puppy and Charlie Horse. Twenty-nine years later, baby boomers' babies are tuning into Lamb Chop's Play-Along, which this summer earned Lewis an Emmy (her seventh) as Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series.
Lewis, 58, and Lamb Chop, still 6, have never been hotter. Play-Along, which premiered in early 1992 amid pessimism about its chances against high-tech kid stuff like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, is going strong in its second season. Its popularity spurred sales of Lamb Chop in the Land of No Manners (one of Lewis's 17 home videos), helped launch a line of Lamb Chop merchandise and brought Lewis offers for sitcoms and movies. "I've been in the business since I was a child," says Lewis breathlessly, "and I'm finally getting the offers I've waited a lifetime for."
Between the two TV shows, Lewis wrote more than 50 children's books, played Vegas and Tahoe, toured with national companies of shows such as Funny Girl and Bye Bye Birdie and guest-conducted hundreds of symphony orchestras around the world. Given such drive, her TV comeback is hardly surprising. "She's the hardest-working person I know," says Lewis's daughter, Mallory, 30, a creative consultant on the show. "She's not just another pretty face with a sock on her hand." Lewis's husband of 34 years, publisher Jeremy Tarcher (Women Who Love Too Much), is another ardent admirer. "Koran entertainer to be around for five decades is extraordinary," he says. "Being married to her is like being married to Betty Boop. She's a mythical, archetypal figure."
"I come from a family of very energetic people," explains the 5'-tall Lewis. "I was brought up to do what I do." Her father, Abraham B. Hurwitz, was a professor of education at Yeshiva University and New York City's official magician, while her mother, Ann, was a music coordinator for the city's public schools. They encouraged Shari and her younger sister, Barbara, now an interior designer in Los Angeles, to study whatever they liked, and Shari look lessons in acrobatics, piano, violin, dancing and juggling. "Anybody who knew anything, my father would hire them to teach me," Lewis says. She learned ventriloquism from a crusty legend in his 70s named John Cooper, with whom she would practice on a park bench after school.
Lewis's skill with puppets earned her first prize on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts TV show in 1952. But her act didn't take off until she put a sock in it. That happened on Captain Kangaroo in 1956, when Lewis created lovable Lamb Chop (out of what, she won't say). Four years later, she had her own network TV show, a goofy mix of joke-telling, singing and dancing. Play-Along is just as jaunty but has a serious side: It addresses what Lewis sees as the declining quality of childrens' programming.
"Kids are stoned on TV," she says. "And they carry this drowsy, dazed attitude into the schoolroom, where they don't know how to focus." Play-Along is an interactive show that encourages children to participate by acting out stories and songs. "A child's most important work is playing, not watching; doing, not viewing," she says.
One of the ways she's been able to do so much in her own life is by delegating chores. Lewis has had a secretary since she started performing as a teenager, and the same housekeeper for 28 years. "My mother told me not to learn anything that I didn't want to do," she says, "so I never learned to wash a floor or clean a toilet." She also doesn't drive, preferring to have an assistant chauffeur her in a Ford Explorer equipped with a mattress for quick catnaps. "Wherever I go, I arrive rested," she says.
The better to burn energy during all those waking hours. "One of the things I love about Shari is that she has a great body temperature," says Tarcher. "She's very warm, like a little furnace." Briefly married once before (to advertising executive Stan Lewis), she acts like a teenager around her husband. "We're having a love affair," Lewis explains. "I know after 34 years of marriage that's odd, but we're both aware of it, and it's very, very nice." The couple, who live in a four-bedroom, Mediterranean-style Beverly Hills home, eat dinner together every night and spend lots of time with their daughter. Says Mallory: "Shari's schedule has never stopped her from being a great mother."
The trick is "being wonderfully organized," says Lewis. "I start work at 7 A.M. full-bore and I quit at 6:30 P:M. I don't work nights." But boy, does she work days. "I love doing what I do so much that I bounce out of bed in the morning," she says. "In case anybody's wondering, I'm never retiring." Lamb Chop, it seems, is one sock that may last forever.
MARIE MONEYSMITH in Los Angeles