Word to the wise: Don’t wander unaccompanied into the mysterious back room of Shari Lewis’ Spanish hacienda — like Beverly Hills house. Not if you’re a kid who grew up watching the puppeteer and her cloth pals Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse, and Hush Puppy on Saturday-morning TV in the ’50s and ’60s. Not if you’re the parent of a child who is now discovering Lewis’ new PBS program, Lamb Chop’s Play-Along.
Not if you believe in puppet miracles.
Back There is where big guys in T-shirts wield needles and thread, mending Lamb Chop limbs and adjusting Lamb Chop ears. A hospital ward of curly-headed ovine patients, laid out in little Tupperware beds like — like so much meat! The silence of the Lamb Chops!
No, better to stay in Lewis’ living room, and let every baby boomer’s favorite ventriloquist talk about what she calls ”television’s first anti-couch potato show” for kids.
”I’ve got puppet elbow!” Lewis sighs, settling in on her anti-couch potato couch. Her hair is red, in big lamby curls. Her lips are pink to match her socks, her eyes bright behind big, round glasses. Her heels are high.
So are ratings — well, relatively, anyway, in the small-digit world of public-TV numbers. The half-hour daily show made its debut in January (bumping Shining Time Station from its early-morning time slot, to the dismay of some devoted Shining 3-year-olds and their parents). In turn, when Lamb Chop concludes its first run of 30 episodes come April 6, PBS will unveil Barney & Friends, based on Barney, the singing purple dinosaur in the popular video series Barney & the Backyard Gang. At that time, public-TV stations will have the option to rerun Lamb Chop at their convenience.
If the puppet gods are smiling, the show will be renewed this spring, and production will resume.
Lewis has never exactly been off the air — she did a kids’ series for the BBC from 1968 to 1976, and has been a talk-show guest and a Hollywood Square. But for American kids (and former kids), Lamb Chop’s Play-Along creates a new audience for the never-retiring Lewis.
”My job,” says Lewis, ”is to make the inactive activity called watching television into a stimulating, vigorous half hour — and to get kids up on their feet.”
To do so, the 58-year-old grown-up dresses in big, goofy overalls and cheerleads her way through magic tricks and finger games and the kind of Stupid Human Tricks that even the tiniest humans seem to enjoy — like making bop bop BOP! motions, fist to hand. She navigates her antics to interest pre-schoolers and impress 8- to 12-year-olds and play upon the nostalgic fondness of adults. ”I knew the baby-boomer parents were going to slam their kids in front of the set and say, ‘Watch this, I watched it when I was a little girl,”’ she confides in her patented let’s-have-fun-NOW diction.
And her show zip-zaps about at an MTV-like clip, cutting from sing-along to wriggling-on-the-floor activity at a pace that, Lewis says, is her natural rhythm anyway. ”I’m thrilled that kids have finally come up to my speed. Kids grok stuff. They get it in an image.”
They also grok Lamb Chop. The sock-soft puppet with the wriggly nose has been around since Lewis — who grew up the daughter of a New York City magician dad and musician mom, and who trained in music and dance and theater — first did a guest gig on the Captain Kangaroo Show in 1957. Lewis’ Kangaroo appearance led to her own television program, which ran on NBC from 1960 to 1963. Wiseacre Charlie Horse and clingy, insecure Hush Puppy also signed on then.
Three decades later, the hyperproductive Lewis has also cranked out 50 children’s books and a slew of video and audiotapes, including her most recent audio and video releases from A&M Records, Lamb Chop in the Land of No Manners. (A new audio/video combo, Don’t Wake Your Mom, will be released in late April.) She performs with and conducts symphony orchestras around the country. She keeps a hand (and leg) in theater with occasional roles in summer stock and touring company productions (including Funny Girl and Damn Yankees). She enjoys traveling with her husband, Jeremy Tarcher, whose book publishing company bears his name — and counts Women Who Love Too Much among its titles.
And always, there’s her Main Lamb. ”When my daughter was born, I put Lamb Chop into her crib with her, because…I didn’t want Mallory to be jealous.” Today 29-year-old Mallory Tarcher writes for her mother’s show.
Lewis is extra-energized about Lamb Chop’s Play-Along. And she’s also extra-savvy about merchandising, 1990s-style. Which is why she has introduced Baby Lamb Chop into her cast of puppet characters. ”You know how kids love to say, ‘Tell me tell me tell me what I was like when I was a baby’?” coos the creator. ”Well, we do a flashback and Baby Lamp Chop acts it out.” Then she flashes to one other point: The character was designed as merchandise first — a doll created in an exclusive arrangement with Target Stores — and as a TV character second. And 700,000 of those babies walked out of stores within a month this year-before the show was ever on the air. (Everyday Lamb Chops have been a toy-store staple for years.) Small wonder that Baby Hush Puppy and Baby Charlie Horse dolls are also now in the works.
Can you say tie-in merchandise on public television? Shari Lewis may not move her mouth when Lamb Chop talks. But she’s no dummy