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Still a Handsome Couple : Shari Lewis and Sidekick Lamb Chop Teach Kids to 'Play-Along'

July 27, 1993|MONICA YANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Psst. Shari Lewis has a secret: She wants her MTV.

"I can sit and watch it for hours ," Lewis admits. "I love rap, when the lyrics aren't foul. I like a lot of rock and country. And I like zappy, high-energy visuals."

Can this be the same Shari Lewis who's entertained children for more than 30 years with the lovable, laughable puppet Lamb Chop? The same Shari Lewis who, at just 5 feet tall with striking red curls, looks more like Little Bo Peep than a rock 'n' roll fan?

Yup. Only this Shari Lewis is no storybook character. Try a savvy, hands-on businesswoman and a puppeteer-ventriloquist-actress-author-conductor who has won nine Emmy Awards over five decades--including two in May for writing and performing on her latest children's series, "Lamb Chop's Play-Along."

In the world of children's entertainment, the diminutive Shari Lewis is bigger than ever. And like the rap music that drives the opening song of "Play-Along," she is always on the move.

July has been no exception: In the midst of rehearsing for the third season of PBS' "Play-Along," Lewis has published her 61st book, "Lamb Chop's Fables: The Boat Contest" (Time-Life), is readying four more home videos (A&M) based on features from "Play-Along," developing future television projects--including a possible animated Lamb Chop series for CBS--studying screenwriting and working out with her personal trainer. On top of that, Lewis and her husband, book publisher Jeremy Tarcher, just moved to wait out a yearlong renovation of their Beverly Hills home.

Unlike her faithful companion Lamb Chop, who rests comfortably in a sealed plastic storage container far away from the chaos, the 59-year-old Lewis seems to have little time to catch her breath these days.

"People say to me, 'Have you sped up to keep up with today's kids?' " Lewis said amid a pile of unpacked boxes at her temporary residence, sipping a diet soft drink. "And I tell them, 'I'm lucky, the kids have caught up with me!' "

Where they've found Lewis--and her legion of furry friends, like Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy--is on public television. For parents who remember Lewis and Lamb Chop from their childhood--either on CBS' "Captain Kangaroo" or on NBC's "The Shari Lewis Show" (1960-63)--"Play-Along" is an opportunity to bridge generational gaps with their children. For kids, it is a half-hour of goofy gags and silly stories that Lewis uses to boost her viewers' self-esteem.

"Too many kids' shows are about nothing," Lewis laments. Tired of the violence and negative stereotyping in children's TV--"so many shows still have girls sitting around watching while the boys do the action"--Lewis is intent on doing her show her way.

Clearly, it's working. In May, "Play-Along" became the first show in 12 years to best "Sesame Street" for the Emmy for writing on a daytime children's series. The award was all the sweeter for Lewis because she shared it with her daughter, Mallory Tarcher, 31, a creative consultant and writer on the series. The feat is the first for a mother-daughter team, according to a spokesman for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

Compliment her all you want on the show's success, but just don't call it a comeback: Lewis fervently maintains that she never left show business, and never intends to.

"I was brought up and trained for survival," she said of her music-instructor mother and magician father, who saw to it that she was schooled in a wide range of the performing arts, from magic to ballet.

After "The Shari Lewis Show" folded, she starred in a series on England's BBC from 1968 to 1976, and had a syndicated series in the United States from 1975 to 1977, "The Shari Show." She also conducted symphonies around the world, performed steadily in Las Vegas and launched a successful career in children's home videos.

Lewis' energy is evident in "Play-Along," which premiered in January, 1992, and airs locally Mondays through Thursdays at 7:30 a.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28. Described as "an anti-couch potato" show, she designed it to motivate her 2- to 10-year-old target audience to participate in activities with her.

"Kids are living in a consumer society," Lewis explains. "They consume music, but they don't make music. They consume sports, but they don't do sports. They even consume crafts, but they don't do crafts. I find that more and more children want to do . . . I think they've had enough spectatorism."

So on her show, they are encouraged to play, to stretch, to sing, to learn new words and make sound effects when Lewis asks them to. The program does tackle some big issues, like discrimination and vandalism, but in small, often comedic ways. "Of all the shows we're doing on television, this is the one I'm most proud of," said Jon Slan, founder and chairman of Paragon Entertainment, the Canadian company that produces "Play-Along" with Lewis. "It seems to be almost a template for quality children's television."

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