The girl who everything can do
Will her made-in-Toronto TV Shariland bring Canadat elusive star billing?
SHARI LEWIS, the mighty midget from the Bronx, can SING DANCE MIMIC
MAKE PUPPETS LIVE AND TALK BUSINESS LIKE A BANKER
IF TORONTO BECOMES a major international TV film production centre, as some people predict, one of the reasons will be Shari Lewis, a twentyfive - year - old, thimble - sized redhead from the Bronx. Another will be a British Board of Trade order that drastically limits the showing of "foreign-made” films — but not films made within the British Commonwealth — on Britain’s booming commercial networks.
Canada is the part of the Commonwealth handiest to the U. S., and pert Miss Lewis of the Bronx is commuting regularly to toss her rusty pony tail defiantly at the British Board of Trade in Shariland. a new TV series being filmed in Toronto by Trans-Video Productions Limited for distribution in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and other countries.
Shariland isn’t the first TV series to be put together in Toronto to frustrate the British Board of Trade, but the others were potboilers like The Last of the Mohicans, Tugboat Annie and Cannonball. The fact that twenty percent or more of the outlay could be recouped by a sale to U. K. networks made the commercial prospects in Toronto look good, but that’s about all they did do.
Shariland, on the other hand, is a show with prestige attached, for Shari Lewis, puppeteer, ventriloquist, a girl of many talents, is one of the fastest-rising stars of North American TV. Robert Maxwell, the Hollywood producer who created the Superman series and who also turned Lassie into a twenty-million-dollar property, has sold his Hollywood company and moved to Canada, convinced of Toronto’s TV film future. Shariland is his first big bid for a Canadian-made hit.
And Miss Lewis is the girl he’s gambling on to make it go. It looks as though she will: though only the pilot and parts of the first ten shows had been completed by October 1, network sales were already being closed in the U. S., Canada and England.
This is exactly what Maxwell expected. Miss Lewis is remarkable, among other reasons, because almost everyone who sees her perform is instantly ready to stake his reputation, and even his money, that he’s seeing authentic star quality.
Her career is already strewn with contracts offered by people who just happened to catch a single performance. For example Miss Lewis, who had hitherto performed only on local New York TV. made her U. S. network debut one Sunday in
June, 1958, on the Steve Allen show; by Monday she’d been grabbed for four appearances on the Steve Lawrence-Eydie Gorme show. In the seventeen months since then she’s been a guest on twenty-three top network programs — including the Chevy show, the Arthur Murray Dance Party and the Andy Williams show — and has done GE Showtime and Long Shot in Canada. Since the start of this epidemic her fee has jumped from $500 to $5,000 per spot. Robert Maxwell, whose title is executive vice - president and production chief of Trans-Video, is another victim of instant Shari Lewis infection. Maxwell tuned in to Miss Lewis’ show one day on the advice of his attorney; he conceived the Shariland series and went after her forthwith.
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The girl who can do everything
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One critic raved: “Too good for pre-schoolers; needs a show for older children like, say, me”
Miss Lewis is already featured as a star wherever she appears, but those who work with her claim, with astonishing unanimity, that she's going farther still. Maxwell says, "She’s got talent she hasn't even begun to explore,” Canadian cartoonist George Feyer, who has been hired to invent Shariland's scenery and props, says moderately, "She’s a pretty impressive girl.” Trans-Video’s art director, John La Sandra, says immoderately, “She’s fantastic."
Miss Lewis’ personal manager, Lester Lewis (who is no relation) claims, "She's going to be great. A Judy Garland. A Dinah Shore. She's got it.”
Whatever Miss Lewis has got, it is undoubtedly assisted by her foot-and-a-half of red hair in a pony tail, big brown eyes, and the kind of winsome, wrinklenosed cuteness that caused TV critic
John Crosby, in a review of her New York morning show, to say, "She’s altogether too good for your pre-school children and should have a show aimed at older children like, say, me.” Miss Lewis attributes at least part of her particular on-camera intimacy to short-sightedness. “1 can't see more than two feet without glasses,” she says. “My husband says even if I’m pointed in the right direction I can't tell the camera from a person.”
Her professional skills begin with a prodigious list of manual tricks that she's been assembling since she was eighteen months old. She can juggle, do magic, make shadow pictures, fold single sheets of paper into birds that beat their wings and manipulate every imaginable kind of puppet.
Her best-known puppets are four woollen socks (with appropriate felt, button and composition features) called Lamb Chop, Charley Horse, Hush Puppy and Wing Ding. With her fists inside, she grabbles her fingers so skilfully that deafmutes report they can lip-read the wool faces.
In addition Miss Lewis is so accomplished a ventriloquist that the operator of the mike-boom on the Shariland set still can’t master his impulse to shift the boom from puppet to puppet as she voices their lines. "She is probably the finest ventriloquist in the world today,” insists Maxwell. Miss Lewis herself says matter-of-factly, "The only movement you can see is a slight vibration over my Adam’s apple.” She wears high-throated frocks to conceal this.
Miss Lewis can also mime, act Meth-
od-style, do ballet, modern and Hawaiian dancing, play seven instruments and negotiate a twelve-note range in a light, catchy alto. She has recorded one album, Fun in Shariland, and several singles; she has written The Shari Lewis Puppet Book; and she can make a doll or a toy out of just about anything you’d care to name including a wash cloth, a paper bag or a carrot.
Such skills may guarantee a job on the Chautauqua Circuit, or in a kindergarten classroom; they do not necessarily guarantee star-quality. They also do not necessarily stop the show at the London Palladium, a feat Miss Lewis accomplished last fall, or keep Sammy Davis Jr. up all night, a tribute Miss Lewis unwittingly exacted by doing her daily New York program from nine to ten in the morning.
At least one colleague, her young head writer and composer, Lan O'Kun, thinks Miss Lewis' greatest asset is experience. "It's Hying hours, that's what it is.” he said recently. "She's logged more TV airtime than any other girl except maybe Arlene Francis.”
Miss Lewis, who has been performing most of her life and doing television for the hist eight years, put in six hours a week on local New York TV during the 1957-58 season—five on Hi Mom, a daily morning show, and the sixth on a weekly show called Shariland. She won two Emmies for this stint.
As a consequence she has the quick footwork that comes with exposure. If a magic trick fails to work she says, “Whoops," and starts again; if she forgets her lyrics, she's capable of ad libbing new ones; and once, when she lost her voice just before a show, she improvised her way through it with printed cards and pantomime.
On the other hand Alan Cullimore, the English-born director of the Shariland film series, is most impressed by her capacity for sheer hard work. "She's terrifying." he reported recently.
"We shot seven complete production numbers in two days in the August heat.
I pride myself on my energy, but it drove me right into the ground. Yet even when I was satisfied with a take she’d insist we do it again if she thought it wasn’t right.”
Her working day. during shooting, may run from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., but she refuses a stand-in; she also superintends each detail of production, even insisting on being present when composer O'Kun records background music.
Her pace is just as relentless back home in New York. She pores endlessly over the material turned out by her two writers. O'Kun and Stan Taylor, and sometimes requires fifteen to twenty rewrites of a single half-hour script.
She tits in lessons in voice, mime and dancing. She makes guest appearances, works on her new book and consults with Madame Alexander, custom toymaker, who switched last year from Sonja Henie dolls to Shari Lewis dolls and is now about to launch plush Lamb Chop and Hush Puppy toys.
She tries out new puppets, groping for distinctive personalities and voices for them by ad libbing with her staff, or with friends, or with her husband. Jeremy I archer, a young freelance TV producer. And before every show she spends three or four hours a day in front erf a mirror with her regular puppets, intently practising the hand movements that give intricate life to four wool socks.
At least one incident suggests that she’s in danger of doing this almost too successfully, and of playing straight-man to their crosstalk too demurely. The eight-year-old daughter of a script assis-
tant on the Shariland series was allowed to watch the rushes of an early episode. She was utterly absorbed. Afterwards her mother asked. "What did you think of the lady?” The little girl looked puzzled; "What lady?” she asked.
Most adults, thus far. are not so easily distracted from Miss Lewis herself. In fact, Lester Lewis, her manager, thinks this is her trump: "She's not just a performer,” he says. "She's a Personality.”
Miss Lewis is not, at first glance, the classic “star personality." She has a temper, and has been known to reduce writer O'Kun, a Russian-American, to tears; but she has never walked off a set or thrown a tantrum during a take. She makes no specialty of heavy glamour and, in fact, says she prefers her face scrubbed clean of makeup. Except for the black patent hat-box that holds the puppets, she turns herself out like a neat subdeb. "I don’t like frills, but I like a sort of babydoll look." she explains. She and Tarcher, who is her second husband, dislike nightclubs and spend most free evenings quietly in their six-and-a-half-room apartment on Manhattan's west side. She has never walked a cheetah down Fifth Avenue.
Nevertheless her personal impact is
strong enough to provoke her colleagues to orgies of discussion and analysis.
People on the Shariland set seem fascinated. for example, by her relationship to the puppets. "She has a phobia about the puppets." says Maxwell crisply. "No one else must handle them or touch them." Miss Lewis takes them with her almost everywhere she goes, including dinner-parties. Lamb Chop, the hopeful little-girl lamb that is her favorite, was tucked in Tarcher's pocket during their wedding, and went on their honeymoon in the bride's pocketbook. And when Hush Puppy, the bumbling Southern hound, was needed in Toronto for a retake, Miss Lewis padded him and sewed up the hand-opening before she shipped him from New York, so no one in the studio could tamper with him.
"That's just common sense." says Stan Taylor, her second writer. “The puppets arc broken in to her hands. If one of them got stretched out of shape, or if anything happened to it, why it's her livelihood.” Miss Lewis keeps one emergency set of puppets in a New York bank vault, and a second in a Toronto bank vault, but she never uses them.
O'Kun claims that Miss Lewis actively dislikes Wing Ding, her beatnik crow. He also likes to theorize about the reasons. “Lamb Chop's everything Shari would like to be if she were a child. Wing Ding's me. Way out." O'Kun, who is an ex-beau as well as Miss Lewis' head writer, invented Wing Ding and likes him best. Cullimore agrees that Miss Lewis dislikes Wing Ding: "She’ll find any excuse to cut him out of a script." he says. "But she keeps him around all the same.” Her co-workers find food for speculation in other facets of her personality. AI Ward, the six-footer who is working producer of the series, says, "She’s a child-woman. If you tangle with her you feel like you’re beating an infant child. She kind of shrinks into her little pina-
fore.” Miss Lewis is five-foot-zero and weighs about ninety-four pounds after a day's filming. But George Feyer warns, "To push her around is not so easy;" and Cullimore says. “Underneath, that girl is like steel.” Maxwell says tartly, “She likes nothing better than to sit cross-legged on a big couch in conference with six or eight large men."
Taylor insists, “It's just, she has to get things right. She’s out there alone. She's the one who stands or falls by what goes into that camera." Taylor finds her an easy and generous boss, and reports that she raised his salary five times the first year he was on her payroll; she recently gave him a car for his birthday.
Whatever his colleagues' conclusions, Cullimore says, “I've been in this business twenty-two years and I've never known anyone to exert such a disturbing influence on an operation."
Miss Lewis was being taught to exploit the positive almost before she could walk. She is the elder daughter of two educators; (her sister. Bobbie, is seven years younger.) Her mother is a music supervisor in the New York public school system. Her father, Abraham Hurwitz, is a child guidance expert and director of student activities at Yeshiva University, in the Bronx, as well as an accomplished spare-time magician and showman. Both parents made a point of passing on their skills: "It's almost as if my mother and dad had spent their lives accruing material I can utilize,” Miss Lewis says. "I almost feel guilty about it."
Hurwitz, a warmhearted, vivacious little man. is thoroughly dedicated to the notion of “creative education,” which may be described as teaching by smuggling lessons into hobbies and games. He took up magic and other vaudeville arts as teaching devices; he found, for example. that he could lure reluctant students into the workshop by piquing their interest in the construction of the trick box used for sawing a man in half.
Hurwitz naturally practised creative education at home, introducing Shari to magic and other tricks, smuggling work into the fun. and spurring her to fresh efforts by encouraging her to perform for audiences. At four she was joining him onstage at children's shows to pull rabbits out of hats. "Kids must have satisfaction from showing-off." he said recently. "I motivated my Shari to practise piano," he expanded, "by working up a little mind-reading act with her, where 1 went into the audience with a list of thirty pieces she had learned, and she played the one they pointed out to me." Hurwitz also motivated his Shari to tackle six other instruments and to learn dancing and handicrafts. What with the creative education and the motivated play, Miss Lewis was never idle for a minute. "The only thing is, 1 read almost nothing," she says a bit ruefully. "My dad kept taking novels away from me and saying, ’Why don t you do something constructive?' ”
W'hen a broken leg in adolescence interrupted her plans to become a professional dancer, her father, pausing only to confiscate the novel she was reading, spent the hospital visiting hours teaching her puppetry and ventriloquism. She promptly won tin Arthur Godfrey TaLent Scouts contest. When German measles sent her to bed again less than a year later, her father, pausing only to confiscate the novel she was reading, urged her to try putting together a TV show*. It became her first program. Facts -n Fun. "It was frighteningly easy,” she recalls with a sigh.
She’s been on TV ever since.
Miss Lewis is now getting bids from
Hollywood and this year was offered three Broadway musicals. “When it’s right, I’ll do it,” she says. “But this isn't my year for a musical.” It is, it seems, her year for a network TV series. Maxwell comments. “She regards Shariland as just a stepping-stone, but she’s smart enough not to rush it.”
Shariland, which Maxwell calls “a kidult” because it’s aimed at all age groups, is the first musical variety series ever to be filmed in Canada, and it will be the first Canadian-made series ever to be shown on a U. S. network. It will
undoubtedly be carried on CBC-TV as well, though the time-slot has not yet been determined.
It will have dancing and magic tricks and hand arts and lots of the kind of songs that O’Kun, their composer, calls “happy-happies.” It will have cartooned sets and madcap props from the surrealistic curiosity shop of George Feyer’s imagination. Lamb Chop will giggle and go “foof” and be cute. Charley Horse will enlist her in little projects and adventures. Wing Ding, the crow, will make occasional off-beatnik comments and in-
vent devices like cars with big rear wheels and small front ones, “So they'll be going downhill all the time, man.” Hush Puppy will trip over his Southern drawl and the English language: “What ah mean to say is ah am completely uncaulifiowered to speak either as a pert or an expert.”
And Miss Lewis will peer impishly at them each in turn, and encourage them, and mother them, and tease them a little and listen to them—and never let on to anyone that doesn't know better that she’s the star of the show. +