SHARI LEWIS, 1934 - 1998; PUPPETEER A `PLAYMATE' TO GENERATIONS.
Shari Lewis, who used her estimable skills as a ventriloquist and puppeteer to win 12 Emmy Awards and the hearts of parents and their children for four decades with a woolly hand puppet named Lamb Chop, died Sunday at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was 64 and lived in Beverly Hills.
The cause was pneumonia brought about by her fight with cancer, said her spokeswoman, Maggie Begley. Uterine cancer was diagnosed in June and Lewis had been undergoing chemotherapy for six weeks, Begley said. She was thought to be doing well but then developed pneumonia, she said.
Lewis' illness caused her to cut short her production in Vancouver of the latest television series she was creating for PBS, ``The Charlie Horse Music Pizza.'' The series began in January and has been a mainstay of PBS programming for children. A spokesman for PBS said Monday that the three remaining episodes would be broadcast in the fall.
This year marked Lewis' 50th anniversary as a performer. Her career started in 1948 when she appeared in a local NBC show in New York and pulled a rabbit out of a hat (her father had taught her the trick only the day before). Her last PBS series before ``The Charlie Horse Music Pizza'' was ``Lamb Chop's Play-Along,'' which ran from 1989 to 1995. The show won five Emmys in five years as well as a New York International Film Festival Gold Award and many other prizes.
Earlier this year, Lewis said she got the idea for ``The Charlie Horse Music Pizza'' during a conversation with her husband, publisher Jeremy Tarcher, in which they decided that what children liked most was music, pizza and the beach. The show features Dom DeLuise as a cook and an orangutan character who delivers pizza by skateboard.
Lewis was acknowledged to have all the instincts of a multifaceted entertainer. Although she was never a schoolteacher, she knew how to reach children with her puppet sidekicks, chief among them being Lamb Chop, an ageless curly haired creature who would interrupt Lewis with all types of observations and questions. Lamb Chop was arguably her most beloved puppet, but in the eyes of children who watched her shows, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy weren't far behind.
``I'm a role model,'' she said. ``It's really very funny because I never play teacher. I never play parent. I play older playmate.'' She did this most convincingly even in her 60s.
She was a playmate who loved good music and throughout her career she invented ways to encourage children to love it as she did. And so, when she created ``Lamb Chop Loves Music,'' Lewis played the piano in the show, which led Lamb Chop to insist that she wanted to learn to play, too. Lewis then told Lamb Chop that her desire to learn piano wasn't enough, that she had to do much more. Lamb Chop had to learn all the instruments, Lewis said. Lamb Chop agreed, whereupon a collection of instruments came to life to provide a lesson about woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion.
Lewis felt that ``musical training teaches something that is seldom learned in any other manner: namely, that if you stick to what you are trying to do, you will, eventually, get it.''
She was convinced that the study of a musical instrument builds neurological connections and better study habits. In short, ``music makes you smarter,'' she said. ``You could say that music is brain food you eat through your ears.'' She deplored cutbacks in school budgets that caused musical training to be minimized.
She did not limit herself to using her sock puppets to persuade children that they ought to learn an instrument. She took to the podium and conducted symphony orchestras in the United States, Canada and Japan, offering music she thought children would like, especially the sounds of Beethoven, Bizet, Mozart and Stravinsky.
She wrote 60 books for children, including ``Magic For Nonmagicians,'' ``Things That Kids Collect,'' ``One-Minute Bedtime Stories,'' ``One-Minute Favorite Fairy Tales'' and ``One-Minute Greek Myths.'' She also made many recordings, filmstrips and videos for children.
The spokeswoman and members of her family said Lewis was 65, but reference books listed her date of birth as Jan. 17, 1934, which would have made her 64.
Lewis was born in New York the daughter of Abraham Hurwitz, a college professor who doubled as a magician, and Ann Hurwitz, a music coordinator for the New York City Board of Education and an accomplished pianist. Her mother was an energetic woman who began teaching her daughter piano at the age of 2. But Lewis often said she was not a natural pianist and that her passion for music began the day she tucked a violin under her chin.
She studied music theory and orchestration as well as piano and violin at the High School of Music and Art; dance at the School of American Ballet; and acting with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. She even found time to take baton-twirling lessons.
She seemed to learn ventriloquism on her own. When she was a girl, her father thought he heard a voice coming out of a closet in the Hurwitzes' apartment. When he discovered that his daughter had been able to throw her voice there, he found a former vaudevillian to coach her.
She attended Columbia University and in the 1950s was married briefly to Stan Lewis. She married Tarcher in 1958. He survives her, along with their daughter, Mallory - a Sherman Oaks resident, who was head writer and creative director of ``The Charlie Horse Music Pizza.''
PHOTO (1 -- color) Puppeteer, TV host Shari Lewis, shown in a 1997 photo, died Sunday from complications while fighting cancer.
Deb Halberstadt/Associated Press
(2 -- color) Shari Lewis and her puppet Lamb Chop show off an Emmy in 1996. Lewis died Sunday at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Joe Tabaca/Associated Press