SOME NAMES are inseparable: Laurel and Hardy. Rodgers and Hammerstein. John, Paul, George and Ringo. Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop.
Ventriloquist/singer/dancer/actress/author Lewis, 48, will be remembered as the woman who made a career out of talking to her hands on national television, but she's not just for kids anymore.
Lewis and her cuddly coterie, Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy, starred in seven American television series between 1953 and 1975. "I wrote my own material from when I was about 16 and I had German measles. My father took away my novel and handed me a yellow pad and a pencil and said 'write yourself a show.' "
Lewis lives in Beverly Hills with her husband, but is in London right now taping a guest spot for a BBC variety show. "Since 1968, I've had my own series here for the BBC, featuring all kinds of entertainers," Lewis says from London.
"My kangaroo puppet, Captain Person, plays the violin, and on this show he will be playing the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 2 in F sharp minor." Lewis and her husband, book publisher Jeremy Tarcher, are also taking time to visit daughter Mallory, 20, who is studying multinational business at the University of London. Mallory used to help out as a puppeteer on "The Shari Show" in 1975.
Magic and illusion surrounded Lewis as she was growing up. "It's funny, when I did my first command performance, Princess Anne came up and asked me that question, how I got my start with puppets. And I said to her, my father's a magician and we always had magic and puppets around the house. And the princess took one beat and she said, 'Yes, one does tend to get involved in one's family's business.'
"When I was just out of high school, Daddy said to me, 'Mary had a little lamb, why shouldn't Shari have a little lamb?' And so the next person who said to me, 'I want to make you a puppet, what should I make?' I asked for a lamb. And so Lamb Chop walked into my life."
Lewis refers to her puppet partner as if it were a close friend. "I really don't analyze her personality too much. Too much analysis of that which is magic makes the magic go away. Lamb Chop works so organically, she is a very trustworthy ad-libber.
"Lamb Chop has a mind of her own. Stanislavsky said technique is what you have to have for when your instincts fail you. And I really leave Lamb Chop alone because that's an instinct that doesn't fail me," Lewis says, demurring when asked what Lamb Chop is made of. "I would just as soon not go into graphic detail about that. It wouldn't be polite."
Lamb Chop makes appearances on variety shows as part of "her yearly pilgrimage to London," Lewis says. "In fact, when we went to the Tower of London, one of the beefeaters said to me, 'Ain't you the one with the mutton chop?' "
In addition to escorting Lamb Chop on her European tours, Lewis has been performing with and conducting symphony orchestras all over the United States and Canada for five years. "I don't do any children's shows as such. I do all-family performances. I've conducted over 40 symphony orchestras," Lewis says. "In the course of my programs with the symphonies, I dance with 5-foot-8 showgirl puppets and with a Fred Astaire puppet, and I do a full variety program."
Lewis is also the author of 21 books, mostly for children, including her next volume, "One-Minute Bedtime Stories," due out in September from Doubleday. "They haven't all been children's books," Lewis says. "I wrote one with my father, called 'Magic for Non-Magicians.' And I did a book on puppetry and one on Japanese origami."
When she gets back home she will begin taping 13 hours of a new TV series. "It's very funny, a situation comedy with puppets called 'Teacher's Pets.' You know the movie 'Fame'? It's 'Fame' with a whole new crew of fabulous puppets. I'm the classroom teacher," and the rest of the cast is all puppets.
Puppetry has become more sophisticated along with the technologies of the day, Lewis says, "but simple puppets are still simply the most important kind of puppetry. That is why Kermit and Miss Piggy are Jim Henson's stars today, because there's nothing more wonderful than a human being. They are 'human' puppets.
"Since Henson's magnificent work has become so popular, I think people have stopped regarding puppeteers as kind of weird cupcakes who play with dolls. Instead they consider that we are theatricals, with the potential for creating another kind of reality." Lewis laughs. "Not everyone is convinced, though. My husband still accuses me of being a weird cupcake."