Famous puppeteer’s daughter is keeping a legacy alive

Shari Lewis with Lamb Chop in “Shari & Lamb Chop” (Photo via Atlanta Jewish Film Festival)

Credit: Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

Credit: Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

Shari Lewis with Lamb Chop in “Shari & Lamb Chop” (Photo via Atlanta Jewish Film Festival)

“Do not mistake me for Lamb Chop.”

This is what Shari Lewis, the famous puppeteer behind the likes of Hush Puppy, Charlie Horse, and of course, Lamb Chop, apparently said to an exec during a pitch for her 1990s children’s TV series “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along.” What did the exec say to warrant this, you might ask? According to Shari’s daughter Mallory Lewis, they asked what was to stop them from making the show without Shari’s involvement.

Shari might be most well-remembered as the sweet lady who played with Lamb Chop on “The Shari Lewis Show” in the 1960s and then again on “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along” in the early 1990s. But a new documentary called “Shari & Lamb Chop” playing at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (AJFF) shows that Shari was a shrewd businesswoman in her own right – all while trying to keep kindness and humor at the forefront.

Shari passed away in 1998, but her daughter Mallory is keeping Lamb Chop alive and well. Mallory took over for her mother soon after her passing, and now performs with Lamb Chop on TikTok, of all places. She also tours across the country, doing a legacy show that’s half singing, dancing and comedy with Lamb Chop and Hush Puppy, and half a curated collection of stories and videos about her mom. Mallory and Lamb Chop are also expected to make an appearance at the “Shari & Lamb Chop” AJFF screening on Feb. 26.

Rough Draft Atlanta spoke with Mallory about the documentary, her mother’s legacy, and how Wikipedia gets so much, so wrong. Plus, stay tuned for an appearance from a very special guest.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In this documentary, your mom talks about how she was born to the right parents for the sort of path that she took. Did you feel the same way? Did you always think you would go into television?

Mallory Lewis: I always knew I’d be an entrepreneur. The people in my family don’t tend to work well for others. We work well with others, but not for others. But I was my mom’s head writer, and I was her producer for “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along.” It didn’t occur to me that I was going to be in front of the camera, mostly because as a producer, all you want is the best possible star. And I had the best possible star! Then, when mom died, I realized that if I didn’t put Lamb Chop on, Lamb Chop was dead as well. That was an unacceptable thought.

You started performing with Lamb Chop in 2009? Is that correct?

ML: No. I started performing with Lamb Chop in 2000.

Ah, we’ve got to get someone online to update that information, then.

ML: Was that on my website?

Not on your website, but on Wikipedia – which might not be the best source.

ML: Oh my god, I can’t even control – Wikipedia has my birthday wrong! And they won’t let me change it!

Are you serious?

ML: Yeah! They have my wrong husband! They’re like – well no, you know, we can’t just take your word for it. I’m like – but it’s me!

I am her, you can take my word for it.

ML: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. It’s me!

So that transition happened pretty quickly then, after your mother passed?

ML: Immediately. I spent a year accepting posthumous awards for my mother while pregnant and then having a newborn. My then husband very accurately pointed out, he said – you know, we can’t actually make a living with you accepting posthumous awards. If you want to do this, you need to do this. So then I did this.

I watched a lot of interviews with you to prepare for this, and there was one where you talked about a time around when “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along” came back, when someone said to your mom, what’s to stop us from doing this without you? Her answer was great.

ML: You know, people always mistake celebrities for their public persona. So everyone thought, oh she’s just a nice, cute little lady who plays with puppets. No, she was a businesswoman and smart as a whip and tough as nails. And she loved a good dirty joke.

Oh, I know. I love that part of the documentary, with Lamb Chop in Vegas. It’s interesting to see her in that context.

ML: I just did a TikTok that went viral. I was talking about Lamb Chop After Dark, and the fact that a woman came up to me after I did the drunk routine. The woman came up to me, and she goes – your mother would be horrified by this routine! I’m like, madam, my mother wrote this routine! But again, it’s a case of people assuming that they know who Shari Lewis is. She’s the nice little lady who plays with puppets.

Speaking of that private versus public persona aspect of this, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film “Maestro” about Leonard Bernstein, but that’s a pretty big theme in that movie. And in the documentary, someone makes a comment about your mother, that she was on stage all the time. Do you think she ever struggled with separating the public and the private?

ML: She was a true professional, and like, Old Hollywood style, where when she was in public, she was “Shari Lewis” in quotes at all times. You never saw Mom drinking. I mean, she’d have a glass of wine at dinner, but you never – you know, the old school Hollywood [stars] really cared about their image and curating and maintaining it. Now, when mom was home, did we sit on the bed cross-legged watching TV, and eating Stouffer’s mac and cheese when my dad was out of town, with a bottle of wine between us? Yes! That’s a normal human being! Did she wear curlers to bed when my dad was out of town? Yes. Would she have done that when my dad was in town? No. Would she ever leave the house without makeup? No! But she was offstage when she and I were alone.

She didn’t have a lot of friends. She didn’t have time to have friends. You know, she was not a lady who lunched. She didn’t pick up carpool. She never learned to drive, so no one would ever expect her to pick up carpool. But people often say to me, what was it like having a working mother? I’m like, same as it is to have a working father? Why is it that no one ever said – how did your father balance his career and parenting? I mean, that existed when I was young. How old are you, Sammie?

I’m 29.

ML: Okay, so it’s no different for you.

I grew up with a lawyer for a mother and my dad stayed at home. So I’m very familiar with this dynamic.

ML: What’s interesting is, I don’t know if you have kids or are planning on having kids, but as a woman, the pressure to balance work life and home life – it hasn’t changed. Did my mom cook? No. Was she in charge of making sure that the menu was laid out for the week? Yes. Did my mom do the laundry? No. Did my father ever once think – gee, you know, Shari’s pants need a new hem. No. But my mom of course would think [of it.] She didn’t drive carpool, but she hired the nanny. It’s just part of being a woman, and it hasn’t changed in my lifetime.

I hope that it’s changing a little bit.

ML: A little bit! [here she makes a small gap between her fingers, the universal “a little bit” sign]. A little bit.

You mentioned you were pregnant at the time, when you were accepting posthumous awards for your mother and taking over for Lamb Chop. That must have been difficult, taking on all that at once.

ML: You know, I had a really easy pregnancy. My son literally came out four pushes – sorry mom, how can I be of service? But I was pregnant when my mom died, which was of course, very tough. It was a really good distraction, because I was so sad. My mom and I were so close. We worked together every day. We’d work together all day and then talk on the phone when I got home … The pregnancy was a great distraction from what was, and still is, the greatest loss of my life.

I wanted to touch on your relationship with Lamb Chop as a child and growing up.

[Suddenly, Lamb Chop joins the conversation]

Lamb Chop: Oh, hello Sammie!

Hello! How are you?

Lamb Chop: Oh, I’m really good. It’s very nice to meet you! I only saw you when you were little through the television.

I know, I used to watch you.

Lamb Chop: C’mon, sing with me. [I join in] “This is the song that doesn’t end. Yes it goes on and on my friend.”

I’ll tell you all about my relationship with Mallory. So, Shari was my mom. Mallory’s just my pesky older sister.

ML: That pretty much sums it up.

Pesky older sister – I have two of those, so I understand the feeling.

Lamb Chop: Ugh. Ugh! They are so annoying!

They would be laughing their butts off if they knew I was talking to you.

Lamb Chop: Well, they don’t get to meet me. Only you do.

I saw a story in an interview – you tell the story, actually Lamb Chop – it was that Mallory had lost her sweater, or something, at school, and thought she would be in trouble.

Lamb Chop: Oh yeah, oh yeah! When Mallory was little, she would tell me things, and I would never tell Shari!

That’s very sweet of you.

Lamb Chop: I’m a good sister.

I wondered – and either one of you can answer this question – with the documentary, Lisa D’Apolito is obviously the director. What do you think made her the right person to tell your mom’s story?

ML: I will actually answer that one. When Lisa and I met – she was recommended to me, and I was going to Chicago the next weekend and Lisa lives in New York. So I thought, well I’ll just sort of keep going, because I’m halfway across the country from California. I sat down with Lisa, and I said, tell me something that Google doesn’t know about you. She said, well – my parents died while I was pregnant with my only child. I burst into tears, and I was like, so did my mom, and we bonded.

But I think what made her the perfect director for this is first of all, she is fierce. Do not come between Lisa and her goal. And she fell in love with mom. I think that’s part of her process as a director. She’s a strong, independent woman, and a New Yorker. And mom was a strong, independent woman, and a New Yorker. She was just the right person with the right talent and the right passion, and has become a very dear friend.

I started thinking about this while Lamb Chop joined us. I feel like puppetry as an art was a very big part of my childhood, you know, the Muppets, Lamb Chop, whatever it might be. But I feel – and I don’t know how you feel about this – like that is maybe going to the wayside for young children.

ML: I feel like “Sesame Street” is still doing brilliant work. Completely brilliant work. I feel that what’s really gone to the wayside, what my mom provided, was an accessible adult. In my comments – I have a very high engagement rate on TikTok, and I’m so proud I even knew what that sentence meant [laughs] – the consistent comment is, I had a difficult childhood and I used to pretend your mom was my mom. I don’t really know what’s on TV for kids these days, because my kid is 25 and doesn’t watch that anymore and doesn’t live here. But I feel like what is missing is most of the adults on kids’ TV are dummies, or are the ones that the kids are trying to put things over on. Mom provided a warm, safe adult. She wasn’t impatient. She modeled what good parenting was. She wasn’t trying to make dinner and do the laundry while talking to you at home. She was 100% in that camera, looking at you, offering you a kind, nice, funny adult to play with. I think that’s what’s missing more than puppetry. I mean, yes puppetry. But there’s a lack of positive adult role models.

You’ve touched on some of this a bit throughout, but what do you hope people take away from this film about your mother?

ML: That she was everything they thought she was and so much more. That’s really the key. This is not a film where you’re going to walk away and go, ugh! [Adopts a silly voice] Shari Lewis used to beat small children behind the studio! There’s nothing bad. Nobody’s vision of my mom is going to be destroyed by a tell all. There’s nothing to tell that’s bad. But I hope their vision of my mom will be expanded, and they will gain an additional respect for her.

When we started doing this, the production company was like, just so you know, we’re going to dig and find the truth. And I’m like, okay! The biggest problem for Lisa was finding somebody to say anything other than – oh, she was the most focused person I’ve ever met! She was the hardest working person I’ve ever met! She was the most professional person I’ve ever met. Because she just was all those things. I think we’re kind of used to finding the seamy underbelly. There’s no seamy underbelly, but it’s the story of a real woman. And if you grew up watching mom as a little kid, you’re now ready to [see her], just as you now see your parents as people – not as sort of mythical, walking wallets. Mom is more than you thought she was, but you will not be disillusioned. [Laughs] Nobody’s going to go, oh! They just ruined my childhood!


ajc.com

Credit: Rough Draft Atlanta

icon to expand image

Credit: Rough Draft Atlanta

MEET OUR PARTNER

Today’s story comes from our partner, Rough Draft Atlanta. Rough Draft publishes Reporter Newspapers, community newspapers in Brookhaven, Buckhead, Dunwoody, and Sandy Springs. Visit them online at RoughDraftAtlanta.com or on Instagram @RoughDraftATL.

If you have any feedback or questions about our partnerships, you can contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams via email at nicole.williams@ajc.com.

About the Author