(1933 – 1998)
Phyllis Naomi Hurwitz was born on January 17, 1933 to Ann Ritz and Abraham Hurwitz. Her father was an education professor at, and founding member of Yeshiva University. He was also a talented magician. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia named Abraham Hurwitz “New York City’s Official Magician.”
Ann Ritz, Phyllis’ mother was a pianist. She was one of six music coordinators for the Board of Education for the City of New York.
As a result of these connections to entertainment, Phyllis was encouraged to perform. Her father taught her magic. Her mother taught her music and piano. She also learned acrobatics, juggling, ice skating, and baton twirling.
Ventriloquism was another area of her studies. Phyllis was taught the art by another Ventriloquist Hall Of Fame member, John W. Cooper.
She attended New York’s High School of Music and Art where she studied piano and violin. Hurwitz also studied dance at the American School of Ballet, and acting with Sanford Meisner of the Neighborhood Playhouse.
Phyllis went to Barnard College for one year, but left the college to enter show business.
For a short time, Phyllis was married to Stan Lewis. Following their divorce, she kept the name Lewis and her stage name became Shari Lewis.
In 1952, Lewis’ puppetry won first prize on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts television show. This led to Shari hosting her first kids TV show “Facts N’Fun”, on WNBT/WRCA Ch. 4 in NYC. “Facts N’Fun” was seen Sunday afternoons from July 5, to September 26, 1953.
This was followed by “Kartoon Klub” which later changed its’ name to “Shari & Her Friends”. Shari was on air Monday to Saturday evenings on WPIX TV Ch. 11 in NYC from July 6, 1954 to December 22, 1956.
In March 1956, Shari and Lamb Chop appeared on the national television children’s program Captain Kangaroo. She continued doing local television too. Her show “Shari & Her Friends” (formerly Kartoon Klub) changed names again to “Shariland.” It continued its run on WPIX TV Ch. 11 on Saturday Evenings from October 13, to December 22, 1956. Later the show would move to WRCA TV Ch. 4 and air Saturday mornings. The program ran one year from August 16, 1957 to August 16, 1958.
Her next series, “Hi Mom” later changed to “Family” ran weekday mornings on WRCA TV Ch. 4 from August 15, 1957 to March 20, 1959.
Shari won New York-area Emmy Awards for her work on “Shariland” and the series “Hi Mom.” The “Hi Mom” series also introduced several new characters for Shari’s act. These characters included Charlie Horse, Hush Puppy, and Wing Ding.
In 1958, Shari married her boyfriend, Jeremy Tarcher, a publisher and the brother of novelist Judith Krantz.
On October 1, 1960, “The Shari Lewis Show” became her first national network program on NBC. The show replaced The Howdy Doody Show, a beloved children’s program.
Shari also worked outside of her children’s programming. She played Dulie Hudson in the 1961 production of Watching Out for Dulie. She would also guest-star on other TV shows. Her credits include “Car 54, Where Are You?”, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, and “Love, American Style”, where she appeared with fellow ventriloquist, Paul Winchell
“The Shari Lewis Show” ran until September 28, 1963. A few months before the program ended, Shari gave birth to her daughter, Mallory Hurwitz Tarcher on June 19, 1963. Through the late 1960s into the early 80s, Shari appeared on a number of British shows. Among these were the Val Doonican Show and the Royal Variety Performance.
Following in the footsteps of ventriloquist Paul Winchell, Shari began doing voiceovers for cartoons. She was the voice of the Princess in the cartoon segment “Arabian Knights.” In 1968, she worked with Winchell again on the series, “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.”
In 1969, she and husband Jeremy Tarcher, co-wrote an episode for the original series of Star Trek, “The Lights of Zetar.” Shari had hoped to play the female lead but did not get the part.
In 1975, Shari hosted another syndicated show called “The Shari Show.” This was short lived and may have contributed to her displeasure with network television.
In 1984, Lewis faced a breast cancer diagnosis. Her doctors recommended a mastectomy. Shari questioned her doctors, did her own research and opted for a different treatment instead. Shari had a lumpectomy, radiation and took tamoxifen, a drug that blocks the cancer-promoting effects of estrogen on breast tissue.
In the early 1990’s, Public Broadcasting approached Shari about doing a show. In 1992, “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along” began a five-year run on PBS. Shari created the program to include audience participation. It was her “anti-couch potato” show.
Lewis was asked to testify in favor of protections for children’s television before Congress in 1993. When the chairman granted Lamb Chop permission to speak, she became the only ventriloquist puppet to ever testify in front of Congress.
In 1996, Shari released the video Lamb Chop’s Special Chanukah. The program received the Parents’ Choice award. Following “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along,” Shari and Jeremy created “The Charlie Horse Music Pizza.” At the time, many elementary schools were cutting music classes from their curriculum. Lewis and Tarcher felt that they could introduce children to music through the show.
In June 1998, Shari was again diagnosed with cancer. This time it was uterine cancer. Lewis insisted on taping a final episode of The Charlie Horse Music Pizza. She then had a hysterectomy, but her doctors informed her that the cancer was inoperable. She was given six weeks to live.
After recovering from the hysterectomy, Shari began chemotherapy at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. While undergoing chemotherapy, she developed viral pneumonia and died on August 2, 1998, at the age of 65. Shari was survived by her husband, Jeremy Tarcher, her daughter Mallory, and her sister, Barbara Hurwitz O’Kun.
Following her death The Charlie Horse Music Pizza show was canceled. The last episode aired on January 17, 1999.
- An accomplished musician, Shari conducted major symphonies in the United States, Japan, and Canada.
- Lewis wrote over 60 childrens books.
Shari Lewis’ work was highly acclaimed. Over the course of her career she won:
- 12 Emmy Awards
- Peabody Award (1960)
- Monte Carlo Prize for the World’s Best Television Variety Show (1963)
- John F. Kennedy Center Award for Excellence and Creativity (1983)
- 7 Parents’ Choice Awards
- Action for Children’s Television Award
- 1995 American Academy of Children’s Entertainment Award for Entertainer of the Year
- Dor L’Dor award of the B’nai B’rith (1996)
- 3 Houston Film Festival awards
- Silver Circle Award of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (1996)
- Film Advisory Board Award of Excellence (1996)
- 2 Charleston Film Festival Gold Awards (1995)
- Houston World Festival silver and bronze awards (1995)
- New York Film and Video Festival Silver Award (1995)
In 1998, she was posthumously awarded the Women in Film Lucy Award. The award was presented in recognition of excellence and innovation in her creative works, which have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television.
- Daughter Mallory Tarcher wrote for the shows Lamb Chop’s Play-Along and The Charlie Horse Music Pizza. She legally changed her last name to Lewis and resumed her mother’s work with Lamb Chop in 2000.
- Prior to her death Shari Lewis sold the rights to Lamb Chop to DreamWorks. Her daughter Mallory still owns the live performing rights to the Lamb Chop character.
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