Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 15th, 2023
Shari & Lamb Chop (Lisa D’Apolito, 2023) 3½ out of 4 stars.
I am simultaneously too young and too old to have ever experienced Shari Lewis in her two television broadcast eras: from the late 1950s through early 1960s, and then from 1992 until her death from cancer in 1998 at the age of 65. But as a child, I was given her 1975 book Magic for Non-Magicians, co-written with her father, Abraham Hurwitz, which had on its back cover a photo of Ms. Lewis with her famous stuffed-animal companion, Lamb Chop, and since I loved the book (and performed many tricks from it), she has always been dear to my heart. Now, in the new documentary Shari & Lamb Chop, from director Lisa D’Apolito (Love, Gilda), she receives the moving cinematic tribute she deserves.
Born Phyllis Hurwitz in 1933, Lewis was raised by her magician father—a Yeshiva teacher dubbed New York’s “official magician,” who made it his mission to look after wayward boys—and a mother who refused to let her read traditional damsel-in-distress fairy tales. When she showed an interest and aptitude for ventriloquism, dad set her up to be tutored by legendary ventriloquist John Cooper. Hurwitz would bring her on stage as his warmup act, and was beyond pleased when, eventually, audiences refused to let her get off, so entranced were they by the young performer. She then moved onto to the small screen in the nascent broadcast era.
After an earlier stint on a short-lived show of her own, Lewis finally made it big with The Shari Lewis Show, which ran from 1960-63 on NBC. Though she offered many different characters in her act, it was Lamb Chop—the cute, fluffy white lamb with an attitude—that became her most famous creation. No matter what would later transpire in her career, she would be indelibly linked with that little puppet.
The film takes us through the highs and lows of her life and career, tracking her first short marriage (from which she got her thereafter last name) and second, longer marriage (to producer/publisher Jeremy Tarcher), as well as the bitter cancelation of her eponymous show (to make way for cartoons) and later variegated incarnations on stage and screen, including her final shows in the 1990s. Hers is a fascinating life, marked by talent and drive, as well as oodles of charm.
D’Apolito gives us quite a bit of archival footage that displays the depth and breadth of that talent. We watch in awe as she sings many a song trading lines, beat by beat, with Lamb Chop (or another puppet), her voice switching gears seemingly without effort (and certainly without discernible movement of lips when it’s Lamb Chop’s turn). She was truly remarkable. And she was also able to dance and do effective standup comedy, especially in the long years where she was no longer performing for children, but rather for adults in places like Las Vegas.
Her daughter Mallory—with whom she would share a writing Emmy in the 1990s for Lamb Chop’s Play-Along on PBS—is just one of the many interviewees that populate the film, helping to paint a complete and complex portrait of her mother. The result is a fully three-dimensional profile. We end our journey feeling that we have truly come to know Shari Lewis and her delightful companion, exactly as promised by the title. It’s truth in advertising in the best possible way.
[Shari & Lamp Chop just had its world premiere at DOC NYC, where I saw the film with Lisa D’Apolito, Mallory Lewis, and Lamb Chop present.]