If I grouped by audiences the thousands of live shows I worked over the years, my favorites would be the ones filled with children, hands down. Be it a grand production like the Guthrie’s CHRISTMAS CAROL or SESAME STREET LIVE or a bare-stage act like Raffi, or the early days of The Wiggles, the infectious honesty and outright joy of the little ones, their honest laughter, their voluntary sing-alongs, their spontaneous dancing in front of their seats always bright a special happiness to my labor, indeed labor of love.
And Shari Lewis at the Orpheum ranks at the top for an additional type of audience participation.
Shari, her quick-witted sock puppet, Lamb Chop, her slow talking puppet, Charley Horse, and her other ‘friends’, had a popular kids’ show on PBS TV. Shari was at the peak of her career.
Born into a show biz family, her father was proclaimed the official magician of NYC, Sheri was doing magic tricks and studying piano at the age of two. She went to NY’s School for the Arts, studied ballet at ABT, acting with Stanford Miesner, music theory, violin, piano and at the age of 13, her father arraigned for her to study with John Cooper. In her adult years she often conducted symphony orchestras and co-authored, with her husband, Jeremy Tarcher, an episode of the original STAR TREK. And of course, TV, live shows, albums, books, and she even managed to raise a daughter, Mallory.
And once she shared the stage with Poppa Donald.
I knew that Lamp Chop’s Play-Along was a favorite show of my oldest grandchild, Erik, and I managed to score four tickets, down center, when Shari Lewis &Co played the Orpheum…Erik, his friend, Ethan, and their mothers.
Prior to the show, Shari gave me a cue sheet telling me what to take off the prop table and bring to her at her setup on stage.
‘Be sure and wear your hat,’ Lamb Chop told me.
I had just brought my first prop to Shari when I heard a small voice shout out, ‘There’s Poppa Donald.’ I recognized the voice, it was my grandson Eric. And right after another shout, ‘There’s Poppa Donald.’ That I recognized as Ethan’s. Shari looked at me but didn’t say anything and I hurried off stage.
I had no more than stepped past the leg in doing my second cue when the chant began, ‘Poppa Donald. There’s Poppa Donald.’ Only this time it was not confined to Erik and Ethan. Several other small voices had joined in.
I set the prop down and Lamb Chop observed, ‘You must be Poppa Donald.’ I pleaded guilty.
‘Do you have a local TV show?’ Charlie Horse, who had joined Shari and Lamb Chop, asked.
“No,’ I answered, ‘Just a grandson in the audience. ‘I’m sorry,’ I added.
‘Don’t be,’ said Shari. ‘You should be proud.’ I didn’t say anything, but I was proud.
And each time I stepped on stage the shouts grew more and more. Even youngsters in the balcony were joining in.
When the show ended, I heard later, Shari had wanted to call me on stage to take a bow; but I had gone out in the stage alley as quick as possible, to see Erik and Ethan and the moms, before they left. They came out the side door and the boys ran up to me and gave me a thank you hug. They announced that their next stop was going to be the ice cream parlor. Thet invited me to go along. I wished that I could have.
And I was bending over to my two little fans, I was recognized by all the kids that exited that door. ‘Poppa Donald! Poppa Donald!’ And they ran up me smiling and stood and looked at me. A few of the mothers handed me programs and pens and asked me to sign my autograph.
‘Got to go, kids,’ I explained. ‘Got work inside to do.’
Shari was just about to put the two puppets away when I got back.
‘Ask him. Ask him, Shari,’ Charlie Horse said. ‘Oh, I will then,’ he said slowly. ‘Why don’t you join our neighborhood and you could be our own Mr. Greenjeans?’
I laughed and said, ‘But you’d have to hire my grandson Erik too…To shill for me. And I don’t think his folks would let him go.’
‘See,’ Lamb Chop piped in, ‘Told you so. Besides we’re doing fine without a Mr. Greenjeans – even with a cowboy hat.’
‘Lamb Chop,’ Shari said to the sock puppet on her hand, ‘Don’t be rude.
When Shari left, not only did she say thanks to us but so did Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse even though they were packed away in the travel case. ‘And we all look forward to seeing you again soon,’ she said as she walked out the stage door.
But they never made it back. Shari Lewis passed away a few years after.
And her TV show that had humans interacting with puppets was replaced with yet another cartoon, just as was the shows of Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers.
But she left behind a legacy of musical albums and children’s books and a lot of fond memories to a generation of children.
R.I.P. Miss Shari, from Poppa Donald and all your fans.
And in this time of our darkness remember the words of Lamb Chop
It’s bad to be sad and cool to be happy