On August 2, 1998, the American ventriloquist and children’s TV personality Shari Lewis died, at the age of 65. As a multi-talented performing artist who began appearing before the public as a young child, Lewis found her niche when she pulled a simple sock puppet with two eyes over her hand and began conversing with it. The puppet, whom she called “Lamb Chop,” became something of an alter ego for Lewis, sometimes surprising even her (she claimed) by saying things that Lewis herself would not have had the nerve to utter.
Sonia Phyllis Hurwitz was born on January 17, 1933, in the Bronx, New York. Her mother, the former Ann Ritz, was a pianist and music teacher who became the music supervisor for the city’s board of education in the Bronx. Her father, Abraham Hurwitz, was a Vilna- born education professor at Yeshiva University.
Official New York magician
Among other things, Abraham was also a professional magician who during the Depression was appointed the city’s “official magician” by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. In that capacity, he traveled around to the city’s five boroughs putting on shows. From early on, Shari, as she was called, was given a role in his act.
Late in her life, Lewis told an interviewer that she had begun performing at the age of 18 months, when her parents put her on stage at a summer camp they ran – and she always knew that she would perform professionally.
At her father’s insistence, she went on to undergo training in acrobatics, baton twirling, ice skating, juggling, piano and violin. For a while she also wanted to be a professional dancer.
After Shari fooled her father into thinking her younger sister was trapped inside a closet – he walked by and heard his daughter asking to be let out – he encouraged her to study ventriloquism as well, something she did with the well-known ventriloquist John W. Cooper.
She switched “Hurwitz” for the name “Lewis” – which seemed better for the stage -- during a brief marriage to a man with that name. This was around the time that she won a talent contest on the television show “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” in 1952. Within a year, at the age of 20, she had her own TV variety show, in New York, and in the years that followed, moved from local station to station, before premiering, in October 1960, with the nationally broadcast “Shari Lewis Show.”
The sock that won the Emmy
By then, she had introduced not only Lamb Chop, but also the puppet characters Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy, all of which remained with her throughout her career, and which also were mass-produced for sale to her fans.
When American interest in live puppets lagged, Lewis relocated to London, where she had her own weekly children’s show on BBC-1 between 1968 and 1976. She returned to U.S. television big-time in 1992, with the successful “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along,” which ran on Public Television for five years, and won her six Emmy Awards.
When Lewis appeared before the U.S. House of Representatives in 1993, testifying on behalf of strengthening the Children’s Television Act of 1990, she was accompanied by Lamb Chop, who said she wanted to speak too.
When permission was given, the puppet told Lewis, “OK, you can go now,” but when Lewis explained that it didn’t work that way, Lamb Chop went on to give a speech about the importance of government funding and oversight for children’s broadcasting.
Lewis also wrote more than 60 children’s books, and made many videos. She also had a separate career as a guest conductor of symphony orchestras, and traveled around the world appearing with more than 100 different ensembles. She and her husband, the publisher Jeremy Tarcher, whom she married in 1958, also co-wrote the screenplay, “The Lights of Zetar,” for a 1969 episode of the original “Star Trek.”
In 1998, Shari Lewis was diagnosed with uterine cancer, and while in the hospital undergoing chemotheraphy, she developed viral pneumonia and died.
She and Tarcher had one daughter, Mallory, who while her mother was alive, wrote for her shows. In 2000, Mallory, who legally changed her name to “Lewis,” began performing with Lamb Chop as well.