Shari Lewis and her right-hand lamb come to town

July 24, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Shari Lewis gets on the phone and cannot wait for a question before starting the interview.

"I have to tell you about Baltimore. Baltimore has a very special meaning to me," says the ventriloquist, who is appearing tomorrow at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion with her loveable sock puppets Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy.

In rapid fire, she recounts that as a girl, she was already performing bits of magic and ventriloquism in the act of her father, Abraham B. Hurwitz, who was once known as the "official magician" of New York. (Ms. Lewis was born Shari Hurwitz.)

"It was at the Lyric Theatre that I first realized that whatever 'it' is, I had 'it,' " she says. "It was the first time that the audience wouldn't let me off the stage. They wanted more. I was 13 and my father was so excited."

A couple generations of kids and parents know well what was to follow.

With Lamb Chop, and other simple puppets, Ms. Lewis became one of the first big stars of children's programming on television. She appeared in a variety of shows in the 1950s and early 1960s, perhaps most notable the Saturday morning "Shari Lewis Show" on NBC from 1960 to 1963.

Last year, Ms. Lewis, 59, returned to TV with the Emmy-winning PBS hit "Lamb Chop's Sing Along." And in between came a couple decades of writing books and producing audio and video tapes for kids, as well as guest conducting symphony orchestras around the country.

Ms. Lewis appeared at Pier Six two years ago. And she also notes that four years ago she took the podium to conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a benefit concert.

What can an audience expect from her stage show?

"Sometimes I dance with big puppets, sometimes I do the whole story of 'Carmen' with puppets . . . but this time I think I will plan a great deal of audience participation," she says.

Naturally, Lamb Chop and cohorts will be along, too. And Ms. Lewis says her puppet patter is not at all just for kids.

"My show has a very funny demographic," she explains, recalling a recent talk-radio appearance.

"We had a call from a woman who said her 12-month-old watches us, and then a call from a 12-year-old and a call from a man who said he was in jail, 'and everybody here watches every day.' I didn't ask how old he was."

The majority of viewers who write to "Lamb Chop's Sing Along," however, are in the 6-to-9 age range, she says.

At a time when the TV industry is grappling with Congressional scrutiny of complaints that children see too much violence on the tube, Ms. Lewis says she understands why children are drawn to such programming.

"I believe that what children find attractive is excitement, and relationships, and a lot of violent programs do have both. You know, you belong to this good gang, that kind of thing."

On her show (seen at 7 a.m. daily, including weekends, on Maryland Public Television), she believes "the excitement comes from music, from movement, from laughter," in contrast to some children's programming she terms as "too slow, too boring."

She will not name any shows that so qualify, however. And when asked whether she agrees with Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan, who said earlier this year that the big hit PBS show "Barney and Friends" is boring, she politely declines comment.

"Lamb Chop does some Barney jokes in our act, though " she adds -- including one in which the puckish puppet discusses the big purple dinosaur and the creatures of the movie hit "Jurassic Park," and opines that Barney "only eats families."

"Our relationships are gentle but not insipid," explains Ms. Lewis, noting that Lamb Chop is often self-centered, and that "we deal with very real subjects."

And she cites Hans Christian Andersen in saying, "I always keep in mind the fact that the adults are listening."

IN CONCERT

What: Shari Lewis with Lamb Chop

When: 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. tomorrow

Where: Pier Six Concert Pavilion at the Inner Harbor

Tickets: $17.50, $13.50 reserved; $10 lawn

Call: (410) 625-1400

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