A few years ago, during the Christmas season, I had the rather extraordinary experience of seeing Mallory Lewis star in her lovely “one-woman” variety show, with that great American kids-TV icon, Lambchop. Happily, Lewis–also a talented writer and television producer–is still performing, and the show can be booked virtually anywhere in the country. Potentially, of course, making any day a holiday! It turns out there are several different shows that Lewis performs including, I’m happy to note, a celebration of American history. The variety of the venues is in itself impressive, ranging from community centers to state fairs, night clubs, and theatres. (Lewis has also toured extensively with the USO, for which Lambchop was “recently pinned” by a Marine General!) Mallory is carrying on the great act and tradition begun by her mom, Shari Lewis, for decades, with such puppets as Lambchop, Charlie Horse, Hush Puppy….I feel strange calling this “an act,” almost as strange as it seems to call Lambchop a puppet. Because while Shari Lewis was a spectacularly talented ventriloquist, she was also a terrific actress. The reason I think she clicked with kids AND adults both, beginning in the 1950s, was that she had that inner glow and charm that is almost imposible to capture in words, but which when it’s there and glimmers, manages to transcend the TV, or whatever medium the performer inhabits. And Lambchop lives in the hearts of millions.
Mallory Lewis’ show is terrific. It turns out she co-produced the last several TV shows her mom did–many of which are still available on video. But no one knew, apparently, that she also, somewhere along the way, picked up her family heritage for performing. And, as our pal Paul Winchell might have said, “Ventrilliliqui….” Lovely and a good singer, Lewis’ neatest attribute was her immediate, and warm, rapport with the kids in the audience. The show was a Chanukah party/concert in Manhattan. And when Lewis appeared center stage, with Lambchop, I was moved. How could this be?
I’m not old enough to have seen the TV shows that first made Shari Lewis a household name. And I was TOO old for the PBS shows of the late 1980s that returned Lambchop and company to fame. (And, to be honest, I got a little tired of hearing tykes singing that show’s theme, “The Song That Never Ends…”) But the Shari Lewis show had become legendary in my home. Older relatives had grown up with her, and still loved her. And my father had been entirely taken with the winning gamine from the Bronx.
As I became entirely enthralled by the later 1960s shows of Soupy Sales and Frank Nastassi, Chuck McCann, and Paul Winchell, folks would tell me how great the Lambchop series had been, and how great it would be if Shari would return to TV. I must have seen Lambchop and the gang on some variety show appearance of some kind, because I had memories of the characters by the time they resurfaced. But what was the power in that New York theatre, as Mallory Lewis began bantering with whom I guess one could even say is really her sister? I think it’s the emotion that’s palpable when people encounter artists and characters that they’ve loved since childhood. The 10-year-olds there had also grown up with Lambchop. The joy in their minds was as strong as ours would have been, when tots, if we encountered one of our childhood heroes. By the end of the hour, at least a couple of the grandparents had tears in their eyes. But that’s what happens when an icon comes to life, at least as marvelously performed by Mallory. (Lewis also hosts, and has written a new DVD/video series for toddlers, Phonics for Babies, featuring a new conglomeration of puppets and characters). Afterwards, chatting with Jopseh Giangrasso, the shows’ producer, I suddenly remembered that extraordinary episode of Love, American Style Shari did with Paul Winchell.
Lewis and Winchell play two ventriloquists waiting in a talent agent’s office. Their dummies are on their knees. But the two of them are painfully–way too painfully–shy to even talk to each other. I mean, the ventriloquists. So, the two of them start chatting with their puppets. And they fall in love. It was one of the best vignettes produced on American television in the ’70s.
The great punchline to all this was that Giangrasso then told me something I never knew; that episode was written by Jeremy Tarcher, a celebrated book publisher, Shari’s husband…and Mallory’s dad.
As an actor, one of Jim’s happiest memories is of appearing in two guest-shots on what’s considered the “last” Tri-State area show to capture the spirit of the classic era of local kid’s TV: THE UNCLE FLOYD SHOW, the cult comedy program, both when it was on New Jersey’s own Channel 68 and later when it was syndicated, featured daily on NBC-TV late-night, in New York. (Burns says he, “Still misses Oogie.”) Jim’s also been seen in several films and television shows, and on stage, with the Little People’s Theatre Company (Manhattan’s longest-running, childrens’ theatre), several “readings” of new works, and with the New York Actors Ensemble and others! Burns was actually a pioneer of the second wave of fantasy and science fiction movie magazines, being one of the first writers for Starlog (and several other late 1970s publications), and a contributing editor to Fantastic Films, and Prevue. (He wrote the earliest of these articles, when he was 13!) Burns was one of the field’s first writers to cross over to such mainstream fare as Gentleman’s Quarterly, Esquire, and American Film, while still contributing to such genre stalwarts as Cinefantastique, Starburst, Heavy Metal and Twilight Zone magazines. He also wrote articles for Marvel and DC Comics. More recently, Jim has made several behind-the-scenes contributions to Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, become active in radio, and written Op-Eds and features for Newsday, The Village Voice, TheSportingNews.com and The New York Times. You can reach Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org