The Puppet Masters
What kind of weird irony was at work when two adults who played second fiddle to anthropomorphic inanimate objects and stirred the imaginations of countless children passed away within days of each other? Buffalo Bob Smith, 80, the husky-voiced, buckskin-jacketed host of Howdy Doody, died of lung cancer July 30, and Shari Lewis, 65, the diminutive ventriloquist most famous for her mischievous sock puppet Lamb Chop, died of complications from uterine cancer three days later, Aug. 2.
Buffalo Bob was best buds with Howdy Doody, a redheaded marionette with 48 freckles — one for every state in America during the heyday of Doody, which began on NBC in 1947 and continued until 1960. Bob and Howdy engaged in cornball badinage designed to amuse the ”Peanut Gallery,” the kids in the live studio audience. No ventriloquist himself, Bob chatted with Howdy by prerecording the marionette’s responses. Smith, with his brilliantined hair, wide smile, and trademark call, ”Hey, kids, what time is it?” (”It’s Howdy Doody time!” you screamed back), was the kind of guy a kid could relate to, a flashy but decent uncle.
In the sly, pun-loving Lamb Chop, says Michael Loman, Sesame Street‘s executive producer, Lewis ”created living, breathing comic entertainment. She was a wonderful ventriloquist.” Another kid-TV pioneer, Bob ”Captain Kangaroo” Keeshan, knew both Smith and Lewis. He was the first Clarabell the Clown on Doody, and credits Smith with ”[teaching] me comedy timing.” Of Lewis, who first introduced Lamb Chop on his show in 1957, he says, ”[Once] she put Lamb Chop on her hand, you ignored [Lewis]. You watched this ordinary sock. She put everything into it, gave it her personality.”
Lewis won 12 Emmys, five for her PBS series Lamb Chop’s Play-Along (1992-97). This year she’d started a new show, The Charlie Horse Music Pizza. But Lewis was also significant as a woman in a man’s world. From Edgar Bergen to Señor Wences, ventriloquism had been a male domain, full of wisecracking wooden heads. Lewis lowered the volume; she often whispered to Lamb Chop, and Lamb Chop whispered in response. The result was TV intimacy that sent chills of delight down children’s small backs.
— Ken Tucker, with reporting by Alexandra Jacobs and Dave Karger