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Puppeteer Shari Lewis Dies

Puppeteer Shari Lewis, the children's entertainer who charmed youngsters for decades with furry sidekicks Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse, and Hush Puppy, has died of cancer, her publicist said Monday.

Lewis, diagnosed with uterine cancer in June, was undergoing chemotherapy treatments when she developed pneumonia and died Sunday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, spokeswoman Maggie Begley said.

CBS News Correspondent Sandra Hughes reports that even as children's programming trends changed dramatically, the little sock with the big eyelashes known as Lamb Chop endured for four decades.

Shari Lewis created her signature character Lamb Chop in the 1950's, launching her television career. But when animation started to dominate children's TV, she moved her act to Las Vegas, then to symphony orchestras, and finally she came back to television with her PBS show Lamb Chop's Play-Along.

In a very early interview Lewis credited her parents (her father was a magician) with getting her started as a ventriloquist. Lewis said, "I had great parents. I broke my leg and they gave me a book on ventriloquism. It was just so natural to me."

Lewis was not only recognized for her talent with a dozen Emmy awards but she was regular visitor to the White House. Along with Lamb Chop, she became symbolic of clean and simple entertainment that taught kids basic values about honesty and sharing.

Lewis performed right up until she began treatment for the cancer that eventually took her life. She'll always be remembered for the life she brought to the endearing characters she created.

She began cancer treatments six weeks ago and cut short production in Vancouver on her latest PBS children's series, The Charlie Horse Music Pizza.

Shari Hurwitz was born Jan. 17, 1934, in New York City. Her father, Abraham, was a professor of child guidance at Yeshiva University during the day. Evenings and weekends, he performed as the "official magician" of the New York City Department of Recreation (designated such by Mayor LaGuardia) at playgrounds and community centers throughout the city. Her mother, Ann, was a music supervisor for the board of education in the Bronx public schools.

Lewis' earliest memories were of hearing her father say "abracadabra" and making things disappear. "And then one day, when I was about two or three years old, the family heard a very loud noise at the end of the apartment," Lewis once recalled, "and they ran down and found me dropping my mother's jewelry into the toilet and saying 'abracadabra' and flushingÂ…making Mama's jewelry disappear."

In 1950, Lewis graduated from the High School for the Performing Arts, where she studied violin, voice, and piano. She also studied drama at Columbia University and ballet at the American Ballet School.

"Everybody in my family was a musician or a magician or a teacher, so we have magicians and ventriloquists over to the houe all the time," Lewis told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. "Everybody just sort of helped me learn how to throw my voice and create routines."

By the time she was 13, Lewis was dancing in the chorus of Broadway shows, and during World War II, she and her father performed in USO shows. She learned puppetry too, while she was growing up, and when she was in the hospital recuperating from a broken ankle, her father began to teach her ventriloquism. Later, he took Shari to an expert, a 99-year old ventriloquist, to study.

In 1951, at age 17, she appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts television program, winning for an act that featured a puppet her father had made in 1899.

Her talent for ventriloquism got Lewis work in a lot of commercials. In 1957, she told the New York Herald Tribune,: "I've imitated chickens, dogs, cats, airplanes, little girls, boys, babies, winds, a few hundred housewives, and everything else you can think of."

In 1953, Shari began her own television show, Facts 'n' Fun, on WRCA-TV (now WNBC-TV) for which she wrote her own songs, lyrics, and dialogue. At the same time, she was appearing on Kartoon Klub and another show of her own, Shari and Her Friends.

Characters she invented for Kartoon Klub and other shows included Taffy Twink, Randy Rocket, a space cadet and Pip Squeak, a monkey who never spoke.

Lamb Chop was first introduced to the world on Captain Kangaroo in 1957, and in the later '50s, Lewis had a Saturday morning show called Shariland, a puppet show on which she performed with her puppet characters Charlie Horse (a nag), Wing Ding (a bird), and, of course, Lamb Chop. The show included songs and retellings of children's classics set in rhyme.

Shari won a number of local Emmys: in 1957 for Best Local Program and for Outstanding Female Personality and in 1958 and 1959, for Best Children's Show and Outstanding Female Personality. Lewis would go on to win a total of 12 Emmys, including five for her last PBS series, Lamb Chop's Play-Along.

The Shari Lewis Show, which began on NBC in October 1960 and ran until September 1963, was where most of her audience got to know Lamb Chop, and it was the show that made Lewis famous. The show won a Peabody Award.

There was a short-lived syndicated show in 1975 called The Shari Show. But, for a long time, most of her work was in concerts, and as a guest on other people's shows for the past 25 years.

In the 1972/73 season, Shari won an Emmy (Outstanding Achievement in Children's Programming) for a show called "A Picture of Us" which aired on the NBC Children's Theatre. In 1986, she was nominated for a Grammy for children's recordings for her One-Minute Bedtime Stories. She was also voted into the television academy Hall of Fame that year.

In mid-January 1992, Lewis began a new children's show, Lamb Chop's Play-Along on PBS her first network show since 1963. Lewis told USA Today in 1992 that the show was designed to encourage participation "by hopping, by jumping, by twirling. They'll play parts in stories, they'll fill in missing words, they'll rhyme along, chime along."

Lewis and Lamb Chop performed for Queen Elizabeth, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush and for the Shah of Iran. She has also done her Lamb Chop act in Japan in Japanese. She told Us magazine in 1988: "Everybody said to me, 'Lamb Chop is very good. You're not so good.' For some reason, Lamb Chop's Japanese was immensely better than mine."

Lamb Chop remained Lewis' most famous and lovable creation, and people went to great lengths indulge the relationship between woman and puppet. A hotel in Washington, D.C., once took lamb chops off the menu when Lewis stayed there. "Rack of lamb is my preference," Lewis told The Wall Street Journal in 1991. "[I order it] if for no other reason than to horrify the waiter."

Among her other puppet creations have been Bugaboo

Lewis wrote 61 children's books, on everything ranging from fairy tales to origami. She also had a thriving career as an orchestra conductor, and has appeared with more than 100 symphony orchestras, big and small, throughout the world. Her conducting talents are impressive enough to have won the Kennedy Center's annual award for excellence in 1983, an honor shared with Sarah Caldwell and Gian Carlo Menotti.

There was an early marriage "that ended badly" to a man named Stan Lewis, an advertising executive.

In 1958, Lewis married book publisher Jeremy Tarcher. Early in the marriage, Tarcher noted Lewis' propensity to fill every available space with puppets. "You can't open one of the doors without being conked by a rabbit or an elephant," he told Cue magazine in 1958. "It's like being married to Fibber McGee."

In 1997, Shari Lewis Enterprises Inc. was sold to Golden Books Family Entertainment for an undisclosed price.

Lewis, who lived in Beverly Hills, is survived by her husband; their daughter Mallory; and a sister, Barbara Okun.

"Shari is also survived by her beloved family of characters, Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy,'' the family said in a news release.

Members of the family said Lewis was 65, although reference books list her date of birth as Jan. 17, 1934, which would have made her 64.

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