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Shari Lewis,
the Soul of a Child

By Sharon Waxman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Lewis and Lamb Chop Shari Lewis, here with Lamb Chop, won an Emmy in 1996. (AP File Photo)

LOS ANGELES—Am I the only parent who would plop a 3-year-old in front of the television set at 7 a.m. in order to get a throatful of nostalgia in Shari Lewis and her woolly pals?

Generally speaking, there's no TV in my house in the morning. No "Arthur." No "Sesame Street." And no "Barney" ("I said no, and don't ask me again"). But an exception was made for Shari Lewis and "The Charlie Horse Music Pizza," as invariably I would find myself perched on the edge of the couch – coffee and newspaper in hand but ignored – smiling at the silly banter between Shari and Lamb Chop.

"Shari," Lamb Chop would bleat in a rasp that managed to strike the note between innocence and mischief.

"What is it, Lamb Chop?" Shari Lewis would respond, nose to nose with her long-lashed friend, already starting to smile.

"Why is it that – " and Lamb Chop would ask some goofy yet insightful question, much as, say, your 3-year-old would. She might ask, "Do stepmothers use stepladders?" And Lewis would answer, teaching as well as entertaining.

Or you'd find her in "Music Man" gear, leading a parade of Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and the gang. Just for fun. Or, as on one recent show, Lewis performing a tap dance routine and a cartwheel. Lewis, who died Sunday at age 65, never lost her glee for her work.

On rediscovering Shari Lewis this year on PBS, I was amazed to note that her instinct for what was fresh and interesting and funny was just as sharp as it was 30 years ago. I marveled at her energy, at how much the show resembled the one I remembered. Maybe the sets were a bit brighter, the graphics a bit snazzier. But Shari Lewis looked just as she did in 1967, except she'd had her red hair permed. Certainly Lamb Chop hadn't aged a stitch.

Am I wallowing too much? Of course. In my mother's house there was no TV in the morning (and almost none in the evening), except for Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop. When she caught my brother and me watching Scooby-Doo behind her back in the basement, we'd be sent to our rooms. But when Shari Lewis was on, she'd end up snuggling on the black vinyl couch in front of the RCA set. My guess is she was as entertained by Lewis's antics as we were. Now I'm the mother snuggling with her kids.

Then and now, her show was a welcome respite from the inanity of children's programming. It lacked the insipid authoritarian air of Captain Kangaroo, as unwelcome then as the rigid do-right morality of Barney today. She managed to poke fun at her characters without humiliating them, and she let them teach her as much as she taught them.

Her humor was gentle. The education inadvertent. Political correctness unnecessary. Her manner was warm but not cloying, like Mister Rogers, whom I (and my mother, and my kids) could never stand. She never talked down to her viewers, and she kept the soul of a child alive within her – the playfulness, the curiosity, the openness.

But the most delightful part was her relationship with Lamb Chop. From the moment Shari Lewis donned that white wool sock with a couple of false eyelashes and a pair of arms, Lamp Chop became a separate and unique personality, a charmer and a practical joker to whom Lewis gladly played the straight man. You never watched the show with an awareness that Lamb Chop was attached to her wrist; she was purely and simply, like Charlie Horse – another Candide-like character with a gruffer exterior – a person. They were all friends, old buddies who'd been through decades of exploits together and invited us to join them.

I can't remember a thing about "Sesame Street," fun though the show may be. But I'll sure miss "Music Pizza." Give me spicy, silly, sparkling Shari Lewis any day, singing that signature tune that makes no particular sense but that neither my kids nor I can get out of our heads:

"This is the song that never ends/ Yes it goes on and on my friend/ Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was/ And they'll continue singing it forever just because/ This is the song that never ends . . . "

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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