Friday, January 2, 2009
Shari Lewis & the Life of Objects (#4 )
Up to now when I’ve written about the life of an object, I’ve chosen something that can be found in our home. This time around—as you may have guessed by the leadoff pic—it’s a bit different. Thanks to our very good Concord, MA pal Margot, we received the DVD A Shari Lewis Christmas as a holiday gift. The DVD is wonderful, & I’d highly recommend it to anyone who: 1. has kids; 2. likes puppets; 3. isn’t bashful about watching great kids shows even when there are no kids around.
But this isn’t really a review of the DVD per se. Watching the three Christmas shows from the early 1960s took me back to my childhood, because as a little kid I adored Shari Lewis & Lamb Chop & Charlie Horse & Hush Puppy. I was a too young to remember The Howdy Doody Show clearly—my older sister watched it, but I only recall the most fleeting images. Shari Lewis was the puppeteer of my boyhood.
Ms Lewis herself, née Shari Phyllis Hurwitz, is a fascinating character. The daughter of a magician & a musician, she was a singular combination of a born entertainer & someone with a passionate intelligence & a commitment to education, especially an education involving music & other creative activities. In a 1997 interview, she quoted statistics on the benefits of early music instruction—all rather telling now in the light of shrinking education budgets & “No Child Left Behind,” which seem to diminish any school activity that can’t be quantified on test scores. In fact, Lewis points out, this type of education actually does improve test scores, tho the creative activities themselves aren’t susceptible to that type of quantification.
But the important thing is that Shari Lewis was about fun—she animated the imagination—literally—by making sock puppets come to life. Puppets are the ultimate as far as the life of objects goes, because most people can be persuaded to suspend disbelief & see a puppet as a living entity, whereas a lot fewer people are willing to do the same for a teakettle or ceramic bric-a-brac. & how did Shari Lewis bring so much life to Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse & Hush Puppy? There are the obvious answers: the individual voices, the actual techniques of ventriloquism—both “throwing” her voice & also being able to speak without moving her mouth. But while these are important, it struck me while watching Shari Lewis that the most important skill she brought to puppeteering—& a skill that speaks to the life of objects & the animated imagination—was her ability to be totally present & engaged with each puppet as she conversed with it. There’s very little irony in her presentation; even when Lamb Chop & Charlie Horse buy her gloves for Christmas & can’t understand why she won’t try them on, the gag doesn’t diminish the puppets.
Shari Lewis had the great talent of being able to suspend her own disbelief. She said, “All fantasy is about exploring facets of your personality that aren't surface, facets not dealt with in everyday life. When you deal with a puppet, you're allowing a sub-personality to emerge and create itself. You don't create it; it does what it wants to do. You know how you hear writers say the character takes over? Well, if the puppet doesn't take over, the puppet isn't worth doodley-squat!” In the interview I linked to above, she gives two examples of Lamb Chop “taking over”: “Lamb Chop is so much my alter ego that she sometimes gets out of hand and says things I wouldn't even dare think to myself. When she first met Desi Arnaz, he was sitting with his feet up on the table and was rather rude. She told him so in no uncertain terms. And that was the first time I really had to stay aware of what she was going to say, because she speaks for herself.” She also describes what happened when she gave a command performance for the British Royal Family: “You're instructed not to say anything about the Queen, and Lamb Chop took off as soon as she saw the Queen. She started babbling about how amazed she was the Queen was bigger than her postage stamp, and she went on and on. They didn't lasso me and pull me off the stage.”
Shari Lewis displayed this suspension of disbelief in another way—when she talked into the camera directly to her audience. This technique was much more common in 1950s & early 1960s television, & really was a fixture on children’s shows at the time, whether it was Shari Lewis, Romper Room, or Captain Kangaroo (the show on which Lewis debuted Lamb Chop in the 50s). She had this talent from the start, too, it seems—the DVD we watched contains an episode of her local 1950s New York program, Hi, Mom, & we see Lewis constantly engaging her audience with direct contact. Talking about the life of objects—the television itself becomes Shari Lewis & Lamb Chop.
It’s strange to think that Shari Lewis is no longer with us; she was someone who exuded life & vitality. Her daughter Mallory does continue to perform with Lamb Chop, however; Mallory Lewis had been involved in the writing & production of Shari Lewis’ 90s shows, Lamb Chop's Play-Along & The Charlie Horse Music Pizza.
There are a number of web pages with good information about Shari Lewis: here, here, & here, for example. There’s also a lot of Shari Lewis & puppet pals on YouTube, tho the provenance of these videos may be a bit uncertain.
Eberle & I have an unfulfilled musical wish: to play background music for puppet theater. Eberle takes this perhaps a step further—she sometimes thinks quite seriously (& out loud) about composing an opera for puppets, perhaps even for finger puppets (at least an operetta). Watching Shari Lewis is an inspiration, because her great talent for believing in the life of objects supercedes even her formidable musical, dancing, & all-around entertainment skills. It’s what made her a true magician.