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New documentary at Santa Barbara International Film Festival tells story of iconic kids TV show host

Shari and Lamb Chop
Shari Lewis with one of her star characters, Lamb Chop.

Before we had Sesame Street, ventriloquist Shari Lewis used her cast of hand puppets, including Lamb Chop, to educate and entertain kids.

Long before we had Sesame Street, and when live children’s shows were a part of network television, we had Shari Lewis. She was a ventriloquist and puppeteer who had a cast of characters. But, most remember her with her fuzzy sidekick, Lamb Chop.

Lewis is the subject of a new documentary called Shari and Lamb Chop, which is one of the featured films at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It tells the story of the legendary performer. It’s nostalgia for some, and a glimpse of our past for younger generations.

"I love unsung heroes, and I love comedians," said Lisa D’Apolito, who directed the new movie, as well as the acclaimed 2018 documentary Love, Gilda, about comedian Gilda Radner.

Lewis had an amazing career, spanning four decades. In the early 1950’s, she won a television talent show, sort of like the current day “America’s Got Talent”. That led to a number of local children’s TV shows in New York. But, in 1960, she got a huge break. NBC gave her a national show, the Shari Lewis Show, which replaced the long-running “Howdy Doody Show”.

D’Apolito says Lewis also wanted to appeal to an older audience, and had had acts with more mature themes she did in places like Las Vegas. Lewis was a pioneer in using comedy, and her puppets to deal with major social issues.

"Sheri was talking through her puppets. She was sometimes talking about about social issues, but she was also talking about her personal life," said the director.

As tastes changed, her career started to fade. She was playing county fairs. But, in 1992, she made an amazing comeback, with the Charlie Horse Music Pizza Show, which help promote music education. It had a five year run on PBS, right up until her cancer-related death in 1988. She was only 65 years old.

"Shari was the ultimate comeback story," said D'Apolito. "She was famous when she was very, very young, and then spent her entire career trying to get back on television," said the director. "She still was a mother, and she still was a wife, but it seemed to me her career came first." But, she points out that Shari's daughter Mallory questions whether we would be saying that if Shari was a man.

D’Apolito said the documentary is filled with interviews with family members and friends, and features rare TV clips.

She talks about what she hopes audiences get from the documentary.

"I would love for people to just be entertained, and feel good about life. Times are pretty tough in a lot of ways, and there's a lot of negativity in the world," said D'Apolito. "I think going into the world of Shari is a such a positive, positive thing. (For some) it brings back memories of a time in your life when you're safe, and a child."

Shari and Lamb Chop has screenings Thursday evening at 5:20 p.m. and Saturday afternoon at 2:40 p.m. as part of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Both screenings are at the Metro 4 Theater in Downtown Santa Barbara.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.