Today is the birthday of Shari Lewis (Sonia Phyllis Hurwitz, 1933-1998). This influential puppeteer and ventriloquist was such a ubiquitous and comforting presence on tv when I was growing up that even now, 16 years after her death, it’s kind of hard to believe she’s not around anymore. Lewis first caught the show business bug from her father, an amateur magician, who taught her what he knew of his craft and encouraged her. She received her first serious instruction in ventriloquism from the pathbreaking African American performer John W. Cooper. In 1952 she won first prize on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, which led to local television, which led finally to her first national children’s show in 1960. Thereafter she and her puppets (especially her famous sock puppet Lamb Chop) were beloved national figures. In addition to this, I think we can all agree that she was the most gorgeous ventriloquist in the history of mankind.
Lewis left an amazing legacy, not the least of which is one of my favorite living performers, “rock ‘n’ roll ventriloquist” Carla Rhodes. Carla was very generous in sharing her thoughts and memories of Lewis with us this morning:
by Carla Rhodes
Shari has undoubtedly had the biggest influence on my life. I was introduced to her through my tv set when I was 8 years old in the early 90’s. I instantly connected with her and wanted to be part of her world. I was head over heels in love with her talent – and wanted to be just like her. Therefore, I taught myself to be a ventriloquist by watching her every day after school. Shari, Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy felt like my best friends! I quickly learned all of their voices and purchased puppet likenesses, so I could have lengthly conversations. Then I found out she’d had some form of a tv show for decades! There were tons of cool items to collect. Even a retired early puppet from the 1950s called Wing Ding!
I felt so connected to Shari I began writing her many letters detailing my budding ventriloquism talents, mundane school work and existence of a pre-teen in the South. Lo and behold, she started to write back! We were pen pals, and I eventually got to meet her numerous times. She was so lovely, warm and encouraging. The last time I saw her she insisted we have a chat alone and bent my ear about my future and show business. I’ll never forget that moment. She taught me at a very young age dreams CAN come true. She believed in me and said I had a real fire in my belly for the business. I cherish all of these memories with her and feel so lucky to be mentored.
Today is her birthday and not a day goes by that I don’t think about her effect upon my life. She started performing as a young teen and worked so very hard. I feel she’s often overlooked in the world of show business when she should be adored… She could sing, dance, write books, conduct orchestras, had a TV record that stretched 5 decades, and do ventriloquism?! I certainly picked the best female role model to admire while growing up. What a strong, amazing woman!
As a ventriloquist, her influence strongly shows in my work. I feel like she broke boundaries with ventriloquism, and I like to think I am too. I dedicated my pilot “The Plight Of Cecil” (taffyland.com) to her and I’d think she’d be quite proud. Her daughter, Mallory Lewis executive produced the pilot, and I know Shari was looking down on us, grinning. Mallory also continues the life of Lamb Chop, and we should all be very grateful!
Happy Birthday Shari! I’ll never forget you or your massive artistic influence on myself and the world