Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Six Year Old Who Loved Shari Lewis

I remember when television disappointed me for the first time. It was the day that Shari Lewis suddenly wasn’t on Saturday mornings any more.

Almost 50 years later, I have no idea why NBC cancelled her show. And it seems at the time, Shari wasn’t told, either. All I know is at age six, I was confused and sad about it. She was like the nice older girl down the street.

What’s maybe even more confusing is why it took anyone so long to give her a network show in the first place. It wasn’t until 1960. By then, Shari had achieved a measure of fame from her local broadcasts in New York starting seven years earlier. Eventually, New York-based national newspaper columnists tuned in and liked her work. (Earl Wilson wrote in a 1955 column that Pinky Lee wanted her for his show. That’s like an outboard motor wanting to power a Cadillac). And the ink translated into appearances on nighttime TV shows starting in 1957. After a visit on the “Tonight” show with Jack Paar on June 24th, International News Service TV columnist Jack O’Brien called her “a delightful ventriloquist, best we’ve ever seen, with a fresh, spanking brightness and by far the class of the show.” Steve Allen, Pat Boone, Patti Page, Garry Moore, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Arthur Murray, “Your Hit Parade,” she appeared on them all. That’s only a few of them. She hosted a Thanksgiving Parade (not Macy’s; Gene Rayburn and Bill Wendell handled that one). She even showed up in Canada on CBC’s “Show Time,” all before she had her own Saturday morning slot on NBC.

Let’s peer at a couple of stories before Shari broke onto the network scene. First, we have the syndicated “TV Key” column (with no other byline) from July 16, 1956.

Shari Lewis Delights Youngsters
NEW YORK—Most cheerful recent addition to New York’s programming schedule for kids is the “Children’s Newspaper of the Air,” presided over by a petite, bouncy ventriloquist-magician named Shari Lewis.
Shari is best known to moppet viewers around the country for her stint on “Captain Kangaroo,” where her red hair was done up in pigtails and her face peppered with freckles.
“I played Uncle Greenjeans twelve-year-old niece,” said Shari, who’s actually 22. “I looked I like a live female Howdy Doody.”
• • •
NOW, WITH her own show Shari can act her age. Like Bob Keeshan, who would rather keep youthful interest with games and educational features than bloodshed or pie-in-the-face comedy.
“My parents were both teachers,” Shari explained, “and I remember how they used to shudder at the comic books I read and movies saw. I guess it rubbed off.”
Happiest facets of Shari’s half hour with the kids are her animated conversations with a pair of puppets known as “Lamb Chop” and “Charley Horse.”
“I don’t write gags for the puppets,” she explained. “We just ad-lib together, trying to get across a point And being animals—sort of cartoons brought to life—they can say things to the children that I can’t.”
• • •
ON A RECENT show, Shari stressed water safety by reasoning away the fears of “Lamb Chop,” who timidly avoided going swimming. She received the thanks of parents, who had been trying to get the same message through to their own youngsters—but without benefit of a friendly puppet to ask all the right questions.
“What is most amazing about the puppets,” Shari noted, “is that they have begun to take on facets of my own personality. There’s something rather mystical about it. More and more I find myself with the same devotion I show an animal like my bull terrier puppy.”
Shari told me about one puppet into which she’d put months of work—then discarded.
“I called her ‘Taffy Twinkle.’ She was brash, cheeky, pushy, had terrible grammar and worse diction. I suddenly realized that these were all the traits I hated most when I saw them in myself.”
• • •
AT PRESENT, Shari’s lively “Children’s Newspaper” can’t be seen outside the New York metropolitan area (although Shari herself can, with a featured role in the film, “Somebody Up There Likes Me”). But, based on sponsor and viewer delight with the diminutive redhead, there’s a likely chance of a network slot next fall.

John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune syndicate was enchanted by Shari. So much that radio/TV vet Arlene Francis was relegated to the second half of his column of December 16, 1957. At the risk of making this post too long, I’ll leave in his comments about Arlene’s show.

‘Hi, Mom’ Star Wins Over Critic
NEW YORK, Dec. 16—“Hi Mom” may be the most revolting title for a television program since “Okay, Mother” but the show itself is a delight. Telecast daily by WRCA in New York, “Hi, Mom” is, I guess, aimed at entertaining and instructing both pre-school kids and their mothers—a difficult assignment.
The main chores on “Hi Mom” are shouldered by a girl named Shari Lewis, who is all eyes and mouth and charm and talent. She’s a ventriloquist who sings songs, tells stories, and is too good for your pre-school children. She should have a show aimed at older children like, say me. “Hi, Mom” is that rare thing, a service show, which have all but disappeared in the mad push for ratings and sponsors.
When Miss Lewis isn’t entertaining, there are all sorts of hints for mother on child care and cooking and so forth. The other day there was a lesson, appropriately, on what sort of toys you ought to get for your baby and, more important, what kinds of toys you should not give him. A registered nurse named Jane Warren pointed out that some toys can be awfully pretty and attractive and still be booby traps for the baby. She showed a rabbit whose button eyes came out and would probably be quickly swallowed, and whose whiskers could cut the baby’s skin.
There was a baby on the show who played contentedly with his rattle while this lecture was going on. Moving on to toys for older children, there was a demonstration of the very latest in train gadgets. This train set has a hobo who is chased by a railroad cop, a commuter who marches up and down impatiently, rotary radar antenna, and other wonders guaranteed to keep all the lathers up half the night putting them together.
From there, Miss Lewis returned to tell a charming story about a French mouse named Anatole to one of her hand puppets—singing a couple of songs in the process. After that there was a visit to something called Josie’s Kitchen in which Josie McCarthy explained how to make banana chiffon cake—in case you want to know how to make a banana chiffon cake.
Altogether it was a very solid, useful, and entertaining hour. I have only a couple of complaints. In the middle of an otherwise blameless hour, Miss Lewis gets on the phone for some kind of contest in which a viewer is rewarded with loot in return simply for looking at the show. The other was that the commercials for a butter sponsor seemed, roughly, to go on forever.
Directly following “Hi, Mom” which, incidentally, won the Mennen Award for its authoritative advice on baby care, comes the Arlene Francis show. Miss Francis’ old show, “Home,” was just about the best daytime show on TV. Her new show is something else again. “Home” offered all sorts of advice on homemaking, gardening, cooking, child psychology, and every kind of culture you could name.
The new show is aimed at entertainment, and it achieves it only once in a while. I happen to think Arlene Francis is just about the brightest, wittiest and warmest personality on television, and I consider it a terrible waste of her talents to be tossed into fifth-rate sketches, singing duets with cast members and talking nonsense with Hugh Downs.
Of course, anything with Miss Francis on it can't be all bad. Guests do come in for interviews, and then the program picks up intelligence.
The other day she had Jack Hawkins, the British actor, aboard, and the conversation had great wit and style about it. Miss Francis also gave an unqualified rave notice to Mr. Hawkins’ film, “Bridge on the River Kwai,” which it thoroughly deserves. It takes courage to go overboard on a movie that has not been released.
But then Miss Francis started reading letters just like Dorothy Dix. Should a husband and wife have joint bank accounts? Should women wear hair curlers, in bed? Her answers are forthright, anyhow. On the question of hair curlers in bed, she’s unhesitatingly in favor.

Shari’s first network show was a half hour sponsored by the Girl Scouts called “Adventuring in the Hand Arts,” which debuted January 11, 1959. Her own show (in colour) premiered on October 1, 1960. It received universal praise. But it lasted only three seasons, despite Cynthia Lowry of the Associated Press writing in a column in February 1963 that the show had been renewed. That changed within a few months. This column is from June 23rd.

Shari Lewis Show Is Regrettable Casualty
AP Television-Radio Writer

NEW YORK—(AP)—One of the regrettable casualties of the current television season is the pending demise of NBC’s “The Shari Lewis Show," for the past three seasons a delightful Saturday morning musical treat for children.
Childhood’s loss, however, may well turn out to be a gain for adult audiences. Miss Lewis, a tiny red-haired young woman who sings, dances, and is one of the most skillful puppeteers and ventriloquists in the business, expects to find time to launch a career as an actress, with a play on Broadway in the fall.
It will undoubtedly come as a great shock to the summer theater audiences who go to see “Indoor Sport” to find Shari, the perpetual ingenue with pony tail hairdo, playing a young matron with divorce on her mind—and without a note to sing or a hand puppet named Lamb Chop or Hush Puppy to talk to.
Cancellation by NBC of “The Shari Lewis Show,” however, does not necessarily mean the end of her special type of entertainment. Negotiations are already in progress to continue her show elsewhere.
Shari is realistic about the windup of the program.
“I think that in network television, there is a real, basic lack of interest in children’s shows,” she said earnestly. “I think, for one thing, it shows in the categories for the ‘Emmy’ awards.
“And to me, it’s a shocking thing that after 10 years of such a splendid children’s show as ‘Captain Kangaroo,’ it has never received an Emmy from the television industry.”
“Just think, out of 30 odd categories, there is just one for children’s shows, and you find in that such ridiculous situations as ‘Captain Kangaroo’ or my show placed in competition with Walt Disney’s programs, each of which costs $100,000 or more to produce."
Miss Lewis believes that her program was canceled for simon-pure economic reasons.
“In order to put on a good television program,” she reflected, “you must spend money. We worked on a budget of something under $10,000 a week, but obviously the network could do better than that—like a cartoon show for children which will cost them about $3,000 a week.”
One of the constant subjects of debate inside the dollar-conscious, sales-conscious industry is the value of young television viewers as customers.
“Actually, I'm convinced that kids are good customers, and I’ve got sponsors who think they are, too, and are willing to follow me wherever I go,” said Shari. “I think children are an important influence on what their parents buy.”
Shari at 28 is a real veteran of show business, having become incurably infected at the age of 18 months when she was allowed to act as mistress of ceremonies for a show at a summer camp.
At 17 she was studying to be a ballet dancer when a broken ankle put an end to that ambition. While recuperating, she studied ventriloquism and practiced with a hand puppet. Within three months she was a winner on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts.”
This was followed by a series of television shows, featuring Shari as a puppeteer, but also giving her a chance to sing, dance and even play violin a little.
She writes much of her own material. She has written several children's books, cut phonograph records, guest starred on all the top variety shows and even, a couple of years back, played a dramatic part in a television comedy. Somehow, amid all this activity, she finds time to be a wife—her husband is a New York publisher--and mother to Mallory, a red-haired girl almost 1 year old.
Actually, Shari’s relationship with NBC is already terminated, because she has finished taping all of her shows. One of the most interesting will be the final program next Saturday: “Cinderella” with original music and with the puppet Lamb Chop playing the fairy godmother.
Although Shari’s immediate future is concerned with playing a mature woman in a sophisticated comedy for adult audiences, she is still thinking about her small fry fans.
Earlier this month she appeared at the Portland, Ore., Rose Festival with a brief one-woman act which she hopes to bring to Broadway for a limited engagement around Christmas time, It is especially created for children and is designed, she explained, “to give kids a sneak preview of what it's like to be grown up.”
“Actually, I enjoy performing for children,” explained Shari. “But that’s not all there is to it. I really enjoy anything that results in a good show—for adults or children.”
“Television is really very frustrating because you work hard for a short period to do a half-hour show7—and it’s gone: I’m looking forward to appearing in one play for ten weeks, touring and perfecting my part. It should be very satisfying.”

Shari’s show went into summer reruns and left NBC on September 28, 1963. And she was right. She was replaced by a cartoon show for children, “Hector Heathcote.” Nothing against Hector, thought I, age six, but why was Shari gone? She was great. She should go on forever.

My childhood was gone in the ‘70s, but Shari came back to TV for someone else’s. And she was back again in the ‘90s, too. Shari Lewis passed away in 1998 but now that almost-one-year-old daughter Mallory is grown up, and touring North America with Lamb Chop. After all, someone else has a childhood. And, you know, Shari Lewis may go on forever after all. There’s an old six-year-old boy who hopes so.


  1. I remember her local shows from my extreme youth in New York. The network affiliates there were the first to kill off their live kids shows -- they were all gone by around 1964, while the independent stations held on to their show hosts like Chuck McCann, Sandy Becker and Joe Bolton a little longer. Shari's work played well enough with younger viewers she was a better fit later with public television (Chuck McCann was way too funny to host a PBS kids show).

    NBC also used Lewis as Fred Gwynn's blind date in an episode of "Car 54 Where Are You?", which being filmed in the Bronx, was an easy job for Shari to take without missing her Saturday job down at 30 Rock. (The gag here being the shy and height-conscious officer Muldoon thinks he's being paired with a date that matches him size-wise and ends up with the ultra-petite Ms. Lewis. It's actually a pretty sweet episode.)

  2. I have always loved Shari Lewis. Thanks for the article.Steve

  3. At least I got to see her in my childhood (though I was already in high school at the time).

  4. I grew up with Shari too (we must be close to the same age), and she was great. Shall I mention again that she was the voice of Honey Halfwitch for Howard Post's Paramount theatrical cartoons in 1965-1966.

  5. This is the song that never ends,
    It just goes on and on my friends.
    Somebody started singing it not knowing what it was
    And they'll just keep on singing it forever just because...

    The part that was so great about Shari is she could expertly tailor her act for the evening talk and gameshow audience. She never got "adult", but her interactions became a bit sharper.

  6. "Fresh, spanking brightness"? Oh, inappropriate imagery alert!