Shari Lewis started rummaging around in her purse for a picture of her daughter in her prom dress. "Here, Mommy," she said to a woman in a spangled top who happened to be, standing nearby. "Would you hold Lamb Chop for a minute?"
Hold Lamb Chop? Just like that -- hold one of America's most famous puppets as if she were a hat or something? Only minutes before, Lamb Chop had been cutesying it up for a film crew, jabbering away in that teeny tiny voice, and now here she was wrapped ignominiously in a plastic bag, being held by her grandmother like a package of celery. Celebrities just never look the same offstage.
Lewis joined about 300 other puppeteers, puppet VIPs and puppet lovers Saturday night at the opening of a new exhibit at the Smithsonian, "Puppets and Things on Strings," which will be on view until Labor Day. The opening coincided with the World Puppetry Festival going on all over this week.
The opening party was supposed to be black tie, which among the puppet community apparently has a rather loose definition. Except for Charlie McCarthy, impeccably attired as usual in top hat and tails, "black tie" ranged from Bil Baird's light plaid suit, red shirt and orange paisley tie to the jeans and sneakers to Frances Bergen's elegant white dress and diamond necklace.
"Yeah, I guess puppeteers are not always comfortable in social situations," said Richard Hunt, who said he works for the Muppets. "They like anonymity," he said, as he tried to get the attention of a small redheaded boy by threatening him with mayhem and making faces. "Why? They all had weird childhoods."
The exhibit, small but historic, includes Howdy Doody, McCarthy and cohorts Mortimer Snerd and Effie Klinker, Baird's Slugger Ryan, and Suzanne the Dancing Doll, a life-size femme fatale. The immensely popular Kermit the Frog, who is credited with spurring a revival of interest in puppetry, has a place of honor, as does a small dwarf puppet made by William N. Buckner while he was the arts and crafts teacher at Washington's Armstrong High School in the 1930s. Buckner, now a frail 91 and confined to a wheelchair, was a guest at the reception, and looked elegant in tuxedo and carnation boutonierre.
After the exhibit is over, McCarthy, Doody and Kermit will stay behind at the Smithsonian, going on display along with Archie Bunker's chair and Fonzie's jacket.
"I insisted on bringing all three with me on the plane," said Frances Bergen, widow of Charlie McCarthy's creator, Edgar Bergen. "I know it sounds a little weird. American Airlines wanted Charlie to be co-pilot and ride in the jump seat. So Effie and Mortimer rode with me -- in cases of course -- and Charlie was co-pilot."
Bergen's daughter, Candice, provided some glamour. She willingly signed autographs and had her picture taken before making an early exit with her mother. Meanwhile a camera crew was filming the event for a projected Edgar Bergen retrospective.
"When my daughter was born, I saw an interview of Candice Bergen in which she said that she'd always been jealous of Charlie because he had his own room and got so much attention," said Shari Lewis. "So I made a Lamb Chop specially for my daughter to sleep with so she'd never feel that way."
Lamb Chop is not in the exhibit. "I could never give out Lamb Chop to be stuffed and stuck on a pole," Lewis said imperiously, as though the very thought sent shivers up her spine.
Muppet mogul Jim Henson was asked how Kermit could be in the exhibit and also on television. "Ah well, it's the spirit of Kermit," he said. Among the guests was a man named Kermit Love, who has long white hair and a beard, and who is rumored to be the inspiration for the great frog's name. "He doesn't like people to say that, though," said Carl Scheele, curator of the Smithsonian's Division of Community Life.
That the puppets on display have become such popular personalities in American entertainment was no surprise to the partygoers, who spoke of them as though they were people.
"I heard that with all these puppeteers in town, the bellhops at the hotels are having a hard time," said Lewis, twinkling through her two layers of false eyelashes. "They're not used to carrying luggage that talks back."
"Look at Howdy Doody," said Bob Schurk, a specialist in the study of popular culture. "He has the cowboy boots and the shirt, things associated with the honesty and bravery of the West. He was giving morality plays. Remember? He'd say, 'And now, boys and girls, that shows you should be kind to old folks.' It was like secular Sunday School at 4 p.m. . . . It's incredible how these puppets took on personalities of their own that dominated the puppeteer. I remember in the '50s they had a Howdy Doody look-alike contest, and my brother got all dressed up in These were kids trying to look like a puppet!"
"It's important because people think it's important," said Scheele, who was carrying around a box that contained Hildegarde's long white gloves, handkerchief, red rose and some sheet music that the creators of Suzanne the Dancing Doll had given him for the entertainment exhibit. "It's a manifestation of our culture, a part of our theatrical experience. And this is the only exhibit where you can collect the actors and actresses and hang them up."