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Children's television favorite Shari Lewis got her biggest break in 1957, when she debuted her puppet alter ego Lamb Chop on CBS' "Captain Kangaroo." Before that, the sprightly, energetic Lewis was the host of local children's programs in the New York area. Among these were "Facts 'n' Fun" on WNBT-TV (1953), "Shari and Her Friends" on WPIX-TV (1954) and 1957's "Shariland" on WRCA-TV. Red-haired pixieish Shari Lewis was born Shari Hurwitz in New York City to a magician father and musical mother. By the age of two, she was studying piano and pulling rabbits out of hats. Growing up in New York, Lewis attended the city's famed High School of Music and Art where she studied music theory and orchestration as well as piano and violin. She also attended New York's Columbia University, and studied dance at the School of American Ballet and acting with Sanford Meisner of the Neighborhood Playhouse. Lewis learned early on of her talent for ventriloquism and won on "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" in 1952 which led to her many children's television projects. In 1960, she created "The Shari Lewis Show" (NBC), the first show to feature her most beloved puppets Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy. The show aired until 1963, when the increasing popularity of animated children's fare pushed it off the air.
After the run of "The Shari Lewis Show," Lewis branched out, writing along with husband Jeremy Tarcher "The Lights of Zatar," an episode of the NBC science fiction series "Star Trek" in the late 1960s. Lewis acted and danced as part of touring companies of shows like "Damn Yankees" and "Funny Girl." A trained conductor, she also often guested with orchestras around the world. Lewis performed frequently in Las Vegas nightclubs, most often with dancer Donald O'Connor. In addition to singing and dancing, she brought ventriloquism to the Las Vegas stages, with puppets of celebrities like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Phyllis Diller. Even Lamb Chop made appearances, her act spiced up a bit for the adult audience. From 1968 to 1976, Lewis lived in London and had a program airing Sunday evenings on the BBC. In 1975, she briefly returned to US children's television with "The Shari Lewis Show," a syndicated program set at a puppet-run television station, with Lewis voicing the puppet characters and acting as the human assistant station manager. A family television staple, Lewis frequently guested on various variety specials. In 1986 alone, she appeared on "The Television Academy Hall of Fame" (NBC), "NBC's 60th Anniversary Celebration" and "The 38th Annual Emmy Awards" (NBC).
Educating parents as well as children, she hosted an hour-long informational series for young mothers from 1957-1959 called "Hi, Mom" (NBC). Lewis also spoke at a hearing for the Children's Television Act in 1993, urging the House Telecommunications Subcommittee to protect young viewers from "junk" television and to strengthen the provisions of the Children's Television Act, creating more quality educational programming for children. She returned to children's TV in full force with the entertaining as well as educational "Lamb Chop's Play Along" (PBS, 1992-97). Here a new generation of children enjoyed the antics of Lamb Chop, probably the world's best loved sock. She and her friends Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy had some silly adventures, making mistakes and learning important lessons along the way. "Lamb Chop's Play Along" was an engaging program, a refreshing change from the syrupy fare often served up to children. While Lewis lamented the mean-spirited characters on some shows for children, her puppets were not without their edge. Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy were irreverent children who were sometimes conniving and rude, and always full of realistic personality quirks, like vanity and anxiety. While Lewis acted as the disciplinary and maternal figure in the program, she was never preachy, and played the role of the wiser, older playmate rather than distant adult. Stressing education through entertainment, Lewis taught tricks to remember new vocabulary and games to help with math. The show was a popular and critical success, earning five consecutive Daytime Emmy Awards, and a loyal audience.
In 1994, Lewis appeared on NBC's telecast of the "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade" featuring a huge Lamb Chop balloon. The next year, she guest starred on the CBS sitcom "The Nanny" in an episode revolving around Lamb Chop, and in 1996 appeared as herself in an episode of "Cybill" (CBS). Noticing the lack of holiday specials for Jewish celebrations, Lewis produced PBS' "Lamb Chop's Special Chanukah" in 1995 and "Shari's Passover Surprise" in 1997. She also hosted the math education special "Lamb Chop in the Land of No Numbers" (PBS) and appeared in the PBS special "Kathie Lee Gifford's Lullabies for Little Ones." Lewis stopped production on "Lamb Chop's Play-Along" in 1997, and began to develop a new program for children. Deciding that kids love pizza, music and the beach, she came up with "The Charlie Horse Music Pizza," featuring Lewis as a pizza parlor owner and Dom DeLuise as the cook. The show, set at the beach, with much of the focus on music education, premiered in January 1998. She was in production on the program when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Lewis continued to work to create quality children's entertainment until her death in August 1998.
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