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Hey, it's Shari Lewis! Back in the early 1960s this talented, New York based actress and ventriloquist became a TV sensation. The bright and cheerful Lewis (Real name Sonia Phyllis Hurwitz) introduced millions of kids to her puppet friends, most particularly a confused little sock puppet named Lamb Chop, with whom she put on a terrific one-woman act.
Lewis was funny in a gentle, sweet way appropriate to small children but also amusing for the rest of us. Her ventriloquism was so good that we accepted Lamb Chop as a second personality; she could switch voices quickly between two characters and barely move her lips or look out of breath. She once joked that she could voice three puppets, but was unfortunately limited by having only two hands.
A Shari Lewis Christmas is an excellent way to revisit Shari's talent and appeal. The main program collects three successive The Shari Lewis Show Christmas shows from 1961 through 1963. Shari is joined by Lamb Chop and her other puppets Hush Puppy and Charlie Horse for light skits with a Christmas message. On one show all the characters want to splurge their $5 gift allowances on themselves, but instead do the right thing and give each other smaller gifts.
Shari also dances with a large dog character and another un-costumed live actor. Although produced for Network TV, the shows have a basic B&W TV studio feel, with roll-up titles and no frills. Audio cues aren't always perfect either, but the so-rushed-it's-almost-live vibe flatters Shari's talent. She carries off her puppetry-ventriloquism scenes flawlessly, and is a cute and perky dancer. One might imagine the young Barbra Streisand affecting a similar persona for her early comedy stage work. Ms. Lewis communicates a natural, positive attitude and her infectious smile leaps right off the TV screen. We may have outgrown the show, but never her.
A child prodigy from a Jewish background reportedly also adept at magic, acrobatics, piano and violin, Shari wore her hair just like the earliest Barbie Dolls -- pony tail in the back and poofy up front. She won twelve Emmy awards, a Peabody Award, a John F. Kennedy Center Award and many others. She also wrote many children's books.
S'More's disc of A Shari Lewis Christmas is a B&W presentation apparently sourced from kinescopes; co-producership credit is given to the UCLA Film and Television Library. The image is what we optimistically call "archival quality", which means the only copy available. Credits are intact only on the first year's show. Since the core content of each show is large close-ups of Shari conversing with her sometimes-shy friend Lamb Chop, this is no drawback. We can see the finesse with which Shari manipulates her fingers to make Lamb chop purse her lips in a smile or rumple them in dismay. They're often talking to one another nose-to-nose, a particularly convincing effect. In interviews, Lewis describes Lamb Chop as her alter-ego.
Included as an extra is a theatrical public service announcement in faded color, in which Shari and Lamb Chop wish the theater audience a happy holiday -- and invite them to patronize "the following local stores!" Even better is a 1958 episode of Hi Mom, the early morning talk show in which Shari debuted the Lamb Chop character, entertaining kids while another performer talks about recipes. The show, which is in better shape than the Christmas specials, comes complete with its own commercials -- one of which touts The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, "now playing at the Roxy!" It makes a great comparison with today's feel-good early morning fare.
Overall, Shari Lewis brings back positive memories of innocence and optimism in TV programming. Shari Lewis shares a sweetness and gentle quality with the great Mister Rogers. She had a varied career as a TV cartoon voice, and later revived her Lamb Chop act for more TV specials in the 70s and 90s. She also co-wrote an episode of the Star Trek TV show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Shari Lewis Christmas rates:
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