Puppeteer Shari Lewis, the Emmy-winning children’s entertainer who charmed youngsters for decades with her furry sidekicks Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy, died Sunday of pneumonia at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center following a lengthy battle with cancer. She was 65.
The ventriloquist, who was diagnosed with uterine cancer in June, began chemotherapy treatments six weeks ago and cut short production in Vancouver on her PBS children’s series, “The Charlie Horse Music Pizza.”
Millions of children grew up with the entertainer and her lovable puppets, with each generation introducing their own youngsters to Lewis’ brand of playfulness. She also wrote more than 60 children’s books, including “101 Things for Kids to Do.”
Lewis and Lamb Chop premiered on the children’s TV show “The Captain Kangaroo Show” in 1957. That appearance led to her own TV program, “The Shari Lewis Show,” which ran Saturday mornings on NBC.
With her high-pitched voice (sort of a cross between a lamb and a little girl) and her long, false eyelashes, Lamb Chop was always the focus. The show’s lessons on such topics as sharing, cheating, separation — as told through humorous songs and personified socks — persevered through the decades.
“I think there’s a simplicity to Lamb Chop that is an important part of her appeal,” Lewis said in a 1996 interview.
Lewis’ TV show went off the air in 1963 when most children’s programming went to animation.
She tried her hand as a Las Vegas performer for a while and then did the celebrity gameshow circuit. When those went off the air, she conducted symphony orchestras around the globe.
From 1968 to 1976, Lewis had her own TV series on the BBC on Sunday nights.
She made several White House appearances, including a 1986 Christmas party for kids hosted by Nancy Reagan.
In 1992, she returned to children’s television with “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along” on PBS.
Upon learning of Lewis’ death, PBS president Ervin S. Duggan said, “Shari Lewis was a warm and wonderful person, with extraordinary talent and a limitless generosity of spirit. She was a weaver of magic, bringing laughter, knowledge and joy to the hearts of children and adults alike.
“She will be remembered as a woman of incalculable good works. Her life had real meaning.”
The entertainer won 12 Emmys, including five for her last PBS series, “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along.”
In addition to Emmys, she won a Peabody Award, the John F. Kennedy Center Award for Excellence and Creativity, seven Parents’ Choice Awards and the Action for Children’s Television Award.
Her commitment to children and their education went beyond entertainment. She served on the National Board of the Girl Scouts, the International Board of the Boy Scouts and the Board of the Intl. Reading Assn.
In May 1993 she received an honorary doctorate in education from Hofstra U. in New York.
A native of New York City, her mother began teaching her piano at the age of 2; her father taught her magic and encouraged her ventriloquism. She later studied theory, orchestration, piano and violin at New York’s celebrated High School of Music and Art (the “Fame” school), studied dance at the School of American Ballet and acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse.
Her first break in show business came in 1952 when she was a winner on the “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout” TV show.
Lewis lived in Beverly Hills with her husband of 40 years, publisher Jeremy Tarcher. She is also survived by a daughter, Mallory Tarcher, TV producer/writer and author, and a sister, Barbara Okun of Los Angeles.
The funeral will be private, and a public memorial service will be announced at a later date.