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The return of Lamb Chop, and the woman who brought her back

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Mallory Lewis talks performing with Lamb Chop, her work with the USO, and why she voluntarily jumps out of planes as a hobby
11/02/2010

You all remember her. The cute little New York Jewish girl was on all of our television screens when we were children. She sang songs, and became one of our favorite characters. You know exactly who I’m talking about.

Lamb Chop.

The return of Lamb Chop photo

This sock puppet sheep rose to fame with Shari Lewis, her puppeteer, and was a fixture in most households with young children. In 1998, however, tragedy struck, and Shari died of viral pneumonia at age 65 while undergoing treatment for uterine cancer. It seemed as if Lamb Chop could also be gone for good. And then came Mallory Lewis.

Mallory, daughter of Shari, took over her mother’s legacy and brought Lamb Chop back to the spotlight, performing at state fairs all over the country. While flying through Chicago, in between state fairs and doing a television segment for WGN, Mallory sat down with Oy!Chicago, and gave us some insight into her life as Shari’s daughter, Lamb Chop’s sister, military enthusiast, and skydiving extraordinaire.

Oy!Chicago: So tell me a little about yourself.
Mallory Lewis: My name is Mallory Lewis, I’m a Cancer and I like long walks on the beach…I went to Beverly Hills High School, yes, 90210! And then I went to Barnard College Columbia University. I majored in anthropology, “the study of man!” It has had nothing to do with my life today at all in the slightest! I chose anthropology because I was always interested in evolution but also because at the end of my sophomore year I had the most classes in that. So that worked out.

And what did you do after college?
After college I started out being the eastern regional sales manager for New World Pictures Home Video. This was back in the days when home video first came out, when the choice was beta as the format or VHS. And then I went on to work for RCA Columbia Pictures, and then freelancing with some smaller companies. I moved to Los Angeles, back home, and then I worked in publicity, which most young, talkative, Jewish girls do at some point! And then I started writing. Now I had actually been writing for my mom [Shari Lewis] since I was about 12. And then I started writing for her TV series and Lamp Chop’s Play Along, and then became the producer on that and Charlie Horse Mystic Pizza, and all of the specials. And while I was doing that I started skydiving, for fun, and I met my husband there, and we have an 11-year-old son named James Abraham Tarcher Hood. And when my mom died I started performing with Lamb Chop. So that’s sort of what happened in the last 20 some odd years.

How was it growing up with Lamb Chop?
It was great growing up with Lamb Chop. Mom was very smart and I can only do what I do today because I watched her do it. Because the biggest part of what I do is not the performing although that seems like the biggest part. The biggest part is knowing how to get to the studio on time for a 6am taping, how to deal with the people backstage, deal with agents, deal with the public, deal with very nice interviewers sitting across the table from you who even when they smile don’t have any wrinkles which is kind of irritating! You know my mom led by example, and she really set a very good example for how to be Shari Lewis, I guess would be the way to describe it. She was a good mom, she was fun.

One of the main reasons I started doing Lamb Chop was because I was pregnant when my mom died and I didn’t know how to be a mother without Lamb Chop in my life. And by that I mean my son has had an hour in an F-18 simulator at Miramar Naval Base, he travels to state fairs with me, he has been all around the world because being Lamb Chop’s kid is a great, fun thing to be. And so I couldn’t let that die out of my life and I certainly couldn’t let him not have that specialness in his life.

And how was it growing up with Shari Lewis as your mother?
It was great having Mom as a mom. I didn’t learn as much from her as I should have when I was younger. It wasn’t until I had to be her that I understood the lessons that she was trying to teach me. She used to say things like, “The day begins the night before.” Okay, well that made me want to barf. You know, I was just a normal teenager. But what she meant was, I had a 5:30 wakeup this morning and I was lights out by 9:30 last night because the day begins the night before. I had my clothes laid out, I was ready and I was organized. She set an amazing example on the sets; she was the first one there and the last one to leave. Always. And she and I actually used to have a little contest to see who could get to the set first until finally my producing partner got us both sitting down and goes, “That’s it you two! You’ve made the Kraft Service girl cry three days in a row because you’re here before her! And she can’t get here fast enough!” So she just set a good example and as a mom now, I realize how difficult the number of choices she had to make were. Because you can’t have it all at the same time. Absolutely can’t. I’m so glad that I did not get a TV show with Lamb Chop, which I had been trying for when my son was little, because I wouldn’t have been as good a mom. I wouldn’t have been there. Now my son is older, now my son comes with me. He understands and I had the chance to mold his little self.

When in your life did you realize just how famous Lamb Chop was?
When did I realize how big Lamb Chop was? Well, Mom was off the TV for the sort of crucial five years of my generation. The 4-9, you know when things make an impression on you. And I went to Beverly High, I was at school with huge stars’ kids, so it didn’t feel that big. It felt bigger when we were on the road. Because outside of Los Angeles, you know, in Malibu I don’t feel slim, but when I travel the rest of the country I’m like, “Wow, I am skinny!” But when you live in the shiny bubble, you don’t feel particularly shiny. It’s only when you get out of the shiny bubble that you’re like, “Wow, look at that! I sparkle!” So what’s really sweet is now I do a huge amount of work for the USO and for the troops. And the troops are all 18-30—which is the key pocket for Mom right now because of Lamb Chop’s Play Along. And it’s so nice for me because I have no pretentions that it’s me, I mean it’s this wonderful and amazing character. And so whenever I’m autographing I usually just do Lamb Chop’s autograph which is her little face, and people say, “Oh, aren’t you going to sign your name?” and I’m like, “Oh! Okay!” And sometimes people will call me Shari by mistake and then they’ll go, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” And I’m like, okay, I’ve dyed my hair red, the puppet’s on my hand, I have false eyelashes glued to my face, really, you think I’m going to be offended by that? It’s the ultimate compliment. It’s not like they called me Hitler!

So there are no feelings of competition between Lamb Chop’s character/fame and you?
I don’t know, I’m just not competitive with a sock. But also, she’s mine, so why would I be competitive with her? I’m proud of her! Someone once met me at the airport with a big sign that said Lamb Chop, you know a car company, and the guy goes, “Sorry, is this okay that the sign says Lamb Chop?” And I said, well as long as I don’t have to ride in the trunk then I’m good with it! She’s the one in the trunk! I’m comfortable.

And when did you decide to continue on with Lamb Chop’s performances?
I decided to keep Lamb Chop’s legacy alive. When my mom died I was eight weeks pregnant and I spent most of my pregnancy and most of the first six months of his life accepting posthumous awards for my mom. Until one day my husband looked at me and said, “Sweetie we cannot make a living of this so either go back to producing or put the puppet on.” And so I did. And the first thing she said was at a charity event run by Pat Proft (who wrote Airplane and stuff like that). I put her in the podium because I didn’t want to commit to doing it, and I put her on and just said “Shari would be so proud.” And then in the audience there was silence and then a gasp and then a round of applause. And I thought, okay, I can do this. And then I started by doing like two minutes, a three-minute routine, a five-minute routine, and seven-minute routine, you know I just had to build a routine. Because even though I knew how to do the puppet I didn’t know any material. So that’s the how and when I started.

So how did you figure out the material for the routine?
I was always Lamb Chop’s head writer.  So some of it was mom’s material, more in the beginning—because Lamb Chop is Mom’s daughter, she’s my sister. So now it’s a very different relationship. She has absolutely no respect for me whatsoever.

So what do you do differently with Lamb Chop than what your mother did?
The one thing that I do differently than my mom is that I always have children onstage with me. My mom was an extremely good performer. She was incredibly precise. She ran a much tighter show than I do. She didn’t mess around, I guess. I happen to be a very loose performer. I love having kids onstage. There’s just nothing cuter than a little two-year-old. I once had a little girl who was sitting on my lap onstage after a number, and she holds up this little red bag and goes, “I have a puhse!” I said, “Oh really? What’s in your ‘puhse?’” and the audience starts to laugh immediately, and she goes “Whipstick!” and she holds up a lipstick. And then she goes, “And I don’t know what this is, my mommy gave it to me.” And she holds up a tampon. So the audience starts to roar with laughter, and I go, “Well you can ask mommy about that, here she comes! She’s the one with the really red face!” So I love playing with the kids onstage. So I do that differently than my mom.

What is your favorite part of working with Lamb Chop?
My favorite part of working with Lamb Chop is the USO stuff. It is the most amazing honor to be able to work with the troops. They are all Play Along kids and I had a really emotional experience happen at a fair. There was this very tall guy who came to the autographing. He said that during one of the really bad firefights the guys had started singing the song that doesn’t end, and they didn’t let it stop until they had won. And they sang for four hours, like different people would be singing. And I was told that also by a colonel, and he said that when the guys were on point they were scared. And they would sing, “This is the war that doesn’t end.” So my greatest joy is to do things for the military and their families. That is unbelievable. But it’s just all the love that people give me. It is just like a giant massage, it’s so nice.

Did you ever envision Lamb Chop reaching so many different people, like the troops and their families?
I always knew Lamb Chop had a million ways of reaching people. Because I worked as my mom’s producer, I saw it all. Mom was extremely focused on what she was doing. She never did USO work though—at least not as far as I know—and I feel so sorry for her that she missed that. Because that’s an aspect that it’s just unbelievable, because when you live in the world of “Oh my latte’s too cold!” and then you go to see people who, you know, we have a volunteer military! These are not people being forced to give up their lives and their families’ lives to protect our country, they are doing it because they really believe, even if they don’t believe in the war, even if they don’t believe in the Commander in Chief, it doesn’t matter. They believe in the republic. And they believe that they have a responsibility to protect it. It is so humbling being with members of the military.

Have you ever been formally recognized for your work with Lamb Chop?
We got the Palmer Vision Award, the Kids First Award, I just got one the other day, the UNIMA award, which is for excellence in performance and UNIMA is the international puppetry association. My mom won the UNIMA award 20 years before me.

So it’s like things came full circle?
There’s an awful lot of that. Most of the time I walk around happy, but if you could just add a zero to all my paychecks then I’d be really happy. But other than that, it’s okay. And I love performing with Lamb Chop, she really helps me feel close to my mom. Which is really nice because she [Shari] was my best friend. I miss my mom. You can remarry, you can’t remommy. So it’s wonderful.

What are you most proud of outside of your work with Lamb Chop?
The thing that I’m most proud of outside of Lamb Chop is Jump for the Cause. Jump for the Cause is a women’s world record skydiving event that my girlfriend Kate Cooper and I organized for the last 10 years. We’ve raised over 2 million dollars for breast cancer research. And we bring in the top female skydivers from around the world for a week where we build new freefall records. I had started organizing it before I had my son, and had to stop jumping because I was pregnant. And then all of a sudden after I had Jamie, what had seemed like the only way to spend my weekends, for years, turned into, “Really? Jumping out of a plane? But I have a baby!” All of a sudden my mother brain kicked in, which is a whole different brain than my “Wheeeee!” brain. So I still organize the events but I no longer skydive actively. The first time I jumped, I jumped because someone in the studio said something about skydiving and I said, “Oh I’d love to do that” and my mom goes, “I forbid you to do it.” So of course being the mature 28-year-old that I was, I went skydiving. I hated the plane ride, I hated freefall, I hated the canopy riding, I hated the landing, and the first thing out of my mouth was, “Wow, that was great, can we go again?”

Do you see Lamb Chop as more than just a puppet?
Am I insane? Is that the question? Well actually she is more than just a puppet. Sometimes when there is such a well-drawn character, it has a life of its own. And sort of like Tinkerbell, if you don’t believe, she died. Well Lamb Chop has touched so many millions of people that their love for her has imbued her with a certain amount of life. I mean obviously I know she’s a sock, I’ve been there when they make her. But once she comes to life she is more than the sum of her parts. When I was a little girl, I would talk to her. And I could tell Lamb Chop anything and I never got in trouble. Like I could tell her that I left my new sweater at school and I don’t know where it is, you know the big crimes that an eight-year-old-commits, and she never told my mom.

So she was like your confidant.
Yeah! I still don’t think Mom knows about that. So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

So where do you see Lamb Chop going in the future?
I would love to have another TV series. I think Lamb Chop will continue to be an ambassador that brings out a lovely side of people. When she’s there, people are nicer, I don’t really know how else to explain it. They’re happier, and I think that’s why she works so well for the troops, because she reminds them of a time when nobody was shooting at them. Where things weren’t blowing up.

So would you say Lamb Chop is mainly for kids? Or do you think there are other audiences that would enjoy your routines?
I like children’s entertainment, I like kids very much, but I also have a nightclub routine that I do with Lamb Chop.

Really? A Lamb Chop routine in a nightclub?
It’s on Youtube, and it’s called “Lamb Chop After Dark.” I really try and keep my two worlds fairly separate. Lamb Chop never is X-rated but she does come out wearing a burqa. And it’s politically downhill from there. She’s a very liberal Jewish puppet. Sarah Palin takes quite a beating during this routine. I mean, my humor, I’m more politically incorrect, but even when I don’t have Lamb Chop on my hand, I am still representing my mom, so all the material is just double entendres, it never crosses the line into anything that truly would be inappropriate. And you can deliver a line in a million different ways. So what I deliver with a giggle and a smile during my kids show, I do with a bit more of a shimmy and a smirk in my adult show.

Do you think being Jewish affects how you perform in any way?
Oh totally, being Jewish completely affects my performances. A woman came up to me at my last show and she goes, “Hey we have a lot in common!” and I immediately knew she was Jewish. I mean in Ohio it’s not hard to spot the Jews because there are three of them. And she said, “My mother was a Jewish ventriloquist too.” So I’m like, “Wait, come back after the show, we gotta talk.” So she and her husband the cantor come back and by the end of the conversation I got a gig coming up at their temple during Chanukah. So being Jewish really affects my performances. The Jews turn out for the Jews. Also, Lamb Chop is Jewish. I mean she is clearly Jewish, very publicly Jewish, and so her whole personality is a little New York Jewish girl. I mean she doesn’t daven, so the whole country can connect with her.

Has she ever gotten you into any trouble on the road?
No, she hasn’t caused any trouble on the road, but she has gotten me out of a couple speeding tickets! This one time, a cop pulls me over, and he goes, “What were you thinking?!?” So I just pulled out Lamb Chop and got out of a ticket. She often gets me upgraded because I’ll go up to the first class counter and I’ll assume shock, “Oh I’m not in first class?” And then Lamb Chop will say, “Well I’ll have no objection to being upgraded.” And sometimes that works. So she never gets me into trouble, she gets me out of trouble on the road.

Is there anything else you want the Oy!sters to know?
Thank you for being fans of Lamb Chop. And I’m more than willing to come to a college near you and do my nightclub routine!

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