18 Play-Along Facts About Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop
By Janet Burns
Born Sonia Phyllis Hurwitz on January 17, 1933, Shari Lewis spent much of her life cracking up kids and their parents with puppets and songs while teaching them how to be good to each other and to themselves, too. The petite performer also turned her hand to many pursuits beyond puppets, and dabbled in magic, juggling, dance, writing, conducting, and politics in her day. So even if you started singing “The Song That Doesn’t End” not knowing what it was—and will continue singing it forever, just because—there may be a few things you don’t know about the multitalented lady behind Lamb Chop.
1. HER PARENTS WERE BOTH ENTERTAINERS.
Lewis’s parents raised her with a vibrant range of the performing arts. Both were well-established entertainers in their own right: Her father, Abraham B. Hurwitz, was famously New York City’s official magician during the Great Depression (though no actual documentation of the appointment has ever been uncovered) and dazzled more than a million youngsters during his tenure.
Shari explained in an interview for the New York Public Library’s William E. Wiener Oral History Library that he started learning magic while running a Depression-era Hebrew orphanage—one of many gigs in his lifetime, including being a city recreation director, helping co-found Yeshiva University, and teaching there for 47 years. Lewis said her father picked up the magic arts after noticing that a magician visiting the orphanage was able to engage and delight the understandably distraught kids in ways that his efforts with music never had.
Lewis's mother, Ann Hurwitz, served as a music coordinator for the New York Board of Education, and emphasized the importance of fostering a lifelong love for music and the arts to a child’s education and well being—something her daughter would continue to promote throughout her life. She was also an accomplished concert pianist, and began instructing her daughter on this and other instruments from the age of two.
As an artist, Lewis ultimately gave more performances like her father’s variety acts on the world’s stages, but she told the NYPL that early preferences between her parents’ styles didn’t end up predicting her career, explaining, “Mother taught me the arts and Daddy taught me the variety arts, and I far preferred ballet and music to the mishegoss that Daddy did, which ended up being what saved me from having to get out of show business.”
2. SHE WAS IN SHOW BIZ ABOUT AS SOON AS SHE COULD WALK.
By the time she’d reached the age at which kids often hope to start college, Lewis had already studied under a range of influential actors, musicians, dancers, and variety artists, while getting plenty of at-home instruction and encouragement from her parents. Meanwhile, the young performer was also learning ballet, acrobatics, baton twirling, and the violin (among other things), studying at New York's High School of Music and Art, the American School of Ballet, and the Neighborhood Playhouse with Sanford Meisner.
She also performed in USO shows alongside her father. "My father never used me as his assistant,” she said in 1987. “From the time I was [two or three], I was doing my own segment of his act. He always had me writing and producing it."
3. SHE HATED PUPPETS (AT LEAST UNTIL HER BIG BREAK WITH ONE).
Thanks to her dad’s efforts, Lewis was trained (on top of everything else) in different areas of puppetry by some of its top movers and shakers. She was instructed on the art of voicing puppets by renowned ventriloquist John W. Cooper, and got guidance from New York City’s own Ascanio Spolidoro on manipulating marionettes, a type of puppet she hated. Lewis was looking to abandon ventriloquism for other pursuits.
But eventually, being confined to the chorus in ballet companies changed Lewis's mind. "It wasn't until I tried to get into ballet companies and found that I could get in but I couldn't get out of the chorus that I said to Daddy, 'Where'd we put the dumb puppet?'" she told the NYPL. "[T]hree months after we took the dumb puppet out from under the bed, which was where we kept the dumb puppet, I won the Arthur Godfrey talent scout program [with a puppeteering act]." (This is also when she changed her last name from Hurwitz to Lewis, after the announcer was unable to pronounce her last name.)
Within a year of that win, Lewis had put together Facts n’ Fun, her own TV program, which was quickly followed by acting and writing roles on Kartoon Klub (a.k.a. Shari and Her Friends), Shariland, Hi Mom, and the Girl Scouts-sponsored Adventuring in the Hand Arts
4. SHE DEBUTED LAMB CHOP ON CAPTAIN KANGAROO IN 1957 ...
The performer first introduced long-lashed Lamb Chop to the world on a 1957 episode of NBC’s Captain Kangaroo. For six years following the little lamb’s big debut, Lewis and her puppets were “a staple” on the network, including on Lewis’s own morning program, The Shari Show.
5. ... AND CEMENTED THE PUPPET’S FAME WITH 1992’S
LAMB CHOP’S PLAY-ALONG
Lewis kept busy as a writer, performer, and kids’ television host in the 1970s and ‘80s, though gigs conducting a few symphony orchestras and BBC-1 program and TV specials broadcast around the Commonwealth of Nations meant that American audiences saw little of her and her puppets during that period. In 1992, Lewis and her cloth pals exploded back onto the U.S. children’s television scene with Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, which earned Lewis the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series five times over in the show’s six-year, four-season run.
6. HER PUPPET ROSTER INCLUDED A LIFE-SIZED FRED ASTAIRE.
In the 1980s, Lewis and Lamb Chop took their act to new, often more adult heights on stages around the world, including those in the casinos of Las Vegas, Australia, England, and Hong Kong. Reviewing a 1989 Atlantic City performance that Lewis described as deserving a rating “somewhere between PG and R,” the Philadelphia Inquirer praised Lewis’s four-minute, multiple-puppet version of the opera Carmen and the variety of less familiar puppets onstage, including “a life-size Fred Astaire, complete with tails and top hat, [made] to fulfill one of her fantasies: ‘I always wanted to dance with Fred Astaire.’ So she does.”
7. SHE PREFERRED TO HAVE SOME ADULTS IN THE AUDIENCE, WHO DIDN’T EXPECT "STUPID" CONTENT.
Even when she left Fred Astaire and Lamb Chop’s lewder jokes at home, Lewis liked to have adults in her audiences; she believed they had higher standards for the entertainment they’d be seeing, which could set a needed example for young viewers. "I don't tend to favor an all-children's audience," she told the Associated Press in 1996. "They have been exposed to so much that's stupid that when children are all together they expect nothing but stupidity.” She added,
There's an unnecessary coarsening of children's shows that feature characters that constantly pass wind, [and] mean-spirited, hostile relationships. And, of course, those things attract attention. But I don't think that's what our children should be exposed to.
8. LEWIS AND LAMB CHOP HAVE MADE NUMEROUS TV CAMEOS.
In addition to many of the world’s stages, the energetic pair have also popped up in various TV shows and films over the years. Earlier in her career, Lewis played small roles on popular programs from Car 54, Where Are You? to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and even did some recurring voice-acting on The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.
As a duo, Lewis and Lamb Chop have appeared as guest stars on The Nanny and as bit-part protesters in an episode of Cybill. Lewis commented, ''It's a teeny part, but fun. Cybill mistreats a lamb on television and gets in trouble with the public. There's a protest, and Lamb Chop is there.''
9. LEWIS WROTE DOZENS OF CHILDREN’S BOOKS ...
In her long career, Lewis was at least as prolific away from cameras as in front of them. She penned over 60 books for children on a wide range of topics, including Magic For Nonmagicians, Things That Kids Collect, and the popular One-Minute series of fairy tales, myths, and other stories.
10. ... AND CO-WROTE ONE EPISODE OF STAR TREK.
The 1969 episode “The Lights of Zetar” was penned with her husband, Jeremy Tarcher. Sadly, neither she nor Lamb Chop made an appearance on the Starship Enterprise.
11. LEWIS WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED SYMPHONY CONDUCTOR.
While conducting symphony orchestra performances for kids and adults, Lewis would sometimes up the ante among fellow conductors, perhaps, by also joining in on her fiddle, singing, dancing, and engaging her audiences.
12. LAMB CHOP ADDRESSED CONGRESS ON THE NEED FOR BETTER CHILDREN’S PROGRAMMING.
In 1993, both Lewis and Lamb Chop spoke before the House Telecommunications Subcommittee during a period in which Congress was exploring ways to build upon the 1990 Children’s Television Act. (At that time, kids' shows needed to carry “educational content.” But the networks got a bit creative with the educational aspect. According to a contemporary Deseret News article, “One broadcaster said, for example, that rebroadcasts of the 1962 cartoon series 'The Jetsons' help prepare kids for life in the next century.”) Peggy Charren, Lewis’s longtime friend and fellow proponent of better kids’ programming, told The New York Times after Lewis’s death that the performer’s moving arguments were well received by the assembled politicians, and that Lamb Chop’s slightly sassier but equally impassioned testimony hit home, too: "It was one of those things that nobody who was there will ever forget.”
13. SHE DEDICATED THE CHARLIE HORSE MUSIC PIZZA TO HER MUSICAL MOM ...
Lewis especially credited her multi-talented mother for instilling a lifelong love of music in her, as well as the great importance of music education. Between her many musical TV programs, specials, and interactive performances, she tried to make music education catch on with as many families as possible, and frequently promoted the idea that learning an instrument allows kids to develop stronger study habits and new neurological connections. As a special tribute to Ann Hurwitz's own lifelong support of learning through music, Lewis dedicated her tune-sampling show The Charlie Horse Music Pizza to her mom's memory.
The performer also insisted that music should be fun and exploratory, and admitted that she was intimidated by some of the more traditional, higher-stress instruction she received as a kid. Lewis’s mother first pushed her to take up the piano as a toddler, but her lack of interest (and feeling intimidated by her mother’s enormous ability) held her back from truly falling in love with music until she tried the violin as a teen. "I was given the wrong instrument," Lewis told the Washington Post. "Parents who are willing for their child to try any number of sports should be willing to let them try any number of instruments." With the Lamb Chop's Play-Along "Let's Make Music" special and similar programming, the Post notes, Lewis tried to add some wiggle room to the way many kids first learn to play music, introducing young viewers to a variety of different instruments while keeping fun as its central goal.
14. ... AND HONORED HER DAD WITH LAMB CHOP’S PLAY-ALONG.
With TV as her primary mode of reaching kids, Lewis was always determined to get little ones up and moving during her programs, and to stimulate their minds and imaginations through activity. She once explained, "Self esteem comes from doing something and accomplishing something … It doesn't come from watching TV. [So] I try to turn TV into an activity."
For Lewis, the key to making TV an interactive learning experience was incorporating play—a lesson learned from her happily playful father, and her reason for creating Lamb Chop’s Play-Along in his honor. As she explained in her NYPL interview, her father—nicknamed “Peter Pan, the Magic Man” by the kids at his orphanage, and who thankfully never grew up when it came to play—taught her that his philosophy and motto of “learning through laughter” was the best way of all.
15. LEWIS LIKED TO FREAK OUT WAITERS BY ORDERING LAMB
While Lewis considered fighting for children’s educational and viewing rights to be very serious business, the performer was always a comedian to the core, and happily took the opportunities her fame allowed to alarm waiters over the years. She told the Wilmington Morning Star that she was prone to ordering rack of lamb “at every opportunity” for the horror it’d cause, and she reportedly submitted instructions for preparing lamb chops when TV Guide requested her participation in an issue featuring celebrity recipes.
16. LEWIS’S DAUGHTER IS KEEPING LAMB CHOP’S MISSION ALIVE.
Mallory Lewis followed family tradition by working alongside her mother as a writer, puppeteer, and producer for years before Shari’s death. After her mother’s death, Mallory took up the torch as official Lamb Chop performer and now tours the country with her son and the original puppet.
17. FOR A 6-YEAR-OLD, LAMB CHOP IS UNAFRAID TO TALK POLITICS ...
Both Lewis and Mallory maintained that Lamb Chop is eternally a rambunctious 6-year-old girl, and according to an interview Mallory gave to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the puppet is also a “liberal Jewish democrat”—one who “calls them like she sees them." According to the Los Angeles Times, the character has mostly been ad-libbed throughout the years, at least in Shari’s day, which could account for her straight statements and periodic New York accent.
18. ... LIKELY MAKING HER ONE OF THE MOST OUTSPOKEN THREE-STAR GENERALS.
Mallory told the Huffington Post in 2010 that the performing circuit she and Lamb Chop travel includes “anything the military asks [them] to do,” perhaps bringing Shari Lewis and her father’s history entertaining troops at USO shows full circle. The puppet “loves performing for the troops,” Mallory said, and was even rewarded for her patriotic service with a field promotion from Marine deputy commander of the Pacific Lt. Gen. Tom Conant, making her a three-star general.