I’ve changed cars during the last several years, but not my back seat passenger--a fleecy Lamb Chop puppet in a Santa hat, ruling supreme over various generations of old theater programs, Thomas Guides, plastic water bottles and other essentials of travel.
Every now and then a glance back during gridlock would ease the stress, reminding me of the spunky original--the irrepressible little woolly sock puppet who was never at a loss for a quip or a pun, whose comic anarchy I admired as an introverted kid--who was always open to possibility and alive to the world and her place in it.
Just like her alter ego, Shari Lewis.
Lewis, 65, died Sunday of pneumonia. It is as hard to think of that lively voice stilled as it was to think of Kermit rendered speechless by Jim Henson’s passing.
Writing about children’s entertainment, I covered Shari Lewis and her work often over the years. When Lamb Chop turned 40, in 1996, I interviewed her, too, although she was uncharacteristically shy and Lewis had to do most of the talking. With her boundless enthusiasm and creativity, with her determination to spark kids’ imaginations by giving them the best she had to offer, Lewis was never content to be an icon of early television, languishing on the dusty shelves of baby boomer nostalgia.
Instead, this vibrant, diminutive, emphatically red-haired and seemingly ageless dynamo eagerly embraced changing technologies and changing times and, in so doing, she and feisty little Lamb Chop became contemporary children’s media stars.
Lewis early recognized the potential of children’s home video as an alternative forum for entertainment; the several that she did in the early to mid-1980s offered a playful mix of storytelling, music, magic, jokes and tricks, with wide appeal for children of all ages.
Later, she incorporated those elements into what became her multi-award-winning PBS series, “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along”; her CD-ROM projects; and this year’s new musical comedy PBS series, “The Charlie Horse Music Pizza.”
Her integrity of purpose, the deceptive ease of her face-to-face approach and the uncanny resonance of those simple sock puppets--Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy, who came to life as vividly for today’s young viewers as they had for the previous generation--didn’t change.
When talking to Lewis about her work, it was her effervescent energy that first struck the listener, then the intensity of her focus. It mattered to her that standards were sinking, that children were increasingly being given not the best but the easy and the cheap.
She cared deeply about what she did and how she did it, always putting herself in her child viewers’ shoes to test the rightness of it. “Balance is difficult to find,” she said, “but it’s worth fighting for.”
Mention music, however, the heartbeat of her new PBS series, and you would find her most profound passion. Lewis, a musician herself whose mother was a musician and music teacher, for years conducted countless orchestras in family concerts around the country. She was a tireless advocate for music exposure in early childhood.
You can find her love of music in all of her work: in the carefully composed, positive themes threaded through the bubbly humor, in her impeccable timing as a performer and in the rhythms of her give-and-take with the audience she understood so well, whatever the generation.
“I like what I do,” Lewis said during one of our interviews. “I won’t burn out. If you follow your heart, your heart sings and you just dance to that music.”
Thank you for inviting us to dance along, Shari.
* “The Charlie Horse Music Pizza” airs weekdays at 7:30 a.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28. And Shari Lewis will be the subject of “Biography” at 9 p.m. Saturday on A&E.;