At 40, Lamb Chop Still Plays Along Successfully

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Save for putting on a little extra heft since her early days in show biz, age hasn't touched that perennially bratty, er, young, grande dame of puppet land, Lamb Chop, who turns 40 today.

"Actually, she generally claims that there's another Lamb Chop wrinkling and raveling in the closet," said family entertainment star Shari Lewis, Lamb Chop's red-haired petite pal and mentor.

Lamb Chop, apparently overcome by uncharacteristic shyness--overwhelmed, perhaps, at the thought of all those candles on her cake--was letting Lewis do the talking.

Eleven Emmys later--five for her PBS series, "Lamb Chop's Play-Along"--and after 40 years of astutely keeping up with children's entertainment and media trends, Lewis professes herself unable to explain Lamb Chop's phenomenal staying power and cross-generational appeal.

"I don't know the answer. There's a story about the old man who is asked, 'Do you sleep with your beard over or under the blanket?' and he never slept again wondering about it.

"Lamb Chop works, and when something works so easily and intuitively, I don't want to think about it," she said.

Lamb Chop's road to fame began when ventriloquist Lewis was hired to do the "Captain Kangaroo" show in 1956, playing Mr. Green Jeans' niece. Lewis was asked if she had smaller ventriloquist puppets to work with--"my dummies were so big and clumsy."

Lewis did have a small lamb puppet she had never used, one she had made, she said, as the result of her father joking that "if Mary has a little lamb, why doesn't Shari have a little lamb?"

Two days before she was to do the show, she sat in front of a mirror and "did a basic Stanislavsky improvisation" with the woolly sock puppet to get acquainted. After just an hour, Lewis said, she knew she had something special.

"I did two 'Captain Kangaroo' shows. On Monday morning after the second, NBC offered me my own [local] show. It was like being discovered on a bar stool in Schwaabs."

Lewis passed on a third offer to appear on "Captain Kangaroo" because of a first date with someone she'd met while doing a radio show--"I wanted to be rested." She and that someone, book publisher Jeremy Tarcher, married a year later. They've just celebrated their 38th anniversary.

"I made a good choice," Lewis noted with satisfaction.

In 1960, "The Shari Lewis Show" became part of the NBC network of Saturday morning programming, replacing "The Howdy Doody Show" and winning the Peabody Award during its three-year run.

A "Shari Lewis Show" ran on the BBC for eight years; another ran in U.S. syndication in the 1970s. And there were TV specials, guest appearances and regular gigs in Las Vegas in the '70s and '80s.

From the beginning, Lewis said, "this puppet didn't need any writing. I could just ad-lib with her. To this day, although we have wonderful writers writing for us, I can put her into any situation and she never lets me down."

Lewis created "Lamb Chop's Play-Along" in 1992 and made 85 episodes, now airing in rotation on the multi-award-winning PBS series. These days she's not making new shows, just themed specials--two so far. The first, "Lamb Chop in the Haunted Studio," was an Emmy nominee. Undeniably, Lewis knows how to stay current.

"I am fascinated by the fact," she said, "that we were in on the beginning of TV and then, in the early 1980s, we were in on the beginning of home videos, and now we have released our first CD-ROM and finished our second."

The new "Lamb Chop Loves Music" Philips CD-ROM is an interactive storybook based on the "Musicians of Bremen," introducing children ages 3 to 8 to instruments and musical styles.

"It's 'Tubby the Tuba' for the '90s," Lewis said.

Lamb Chop has big-screen hopes, too. "We are working with a very major writer on a Lamb Chop movie," Lewis said.

Given Lewis' track record, it's no surprise that she has strong views on children's TV programming, as she proved in recent testimony before congressional committees and the Federal Communications Commission.

"I was thinking the other day that in 1960, I had a tremendous fight with an NBC censor because we had used the word 'bellybutton.' And today on children's shows they show their behinds.

"Not being able to say that word was too far in one direction, and all of the mooning and passing wind and flipping off and other terribly inappropriate things that are happening on children's shows are too far in the other direction.

"Balance is very difficult to find, but it's worth fighting for, you know."

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