‘Shari and Lamb Chop’ Make Believe 2024 Review: An Intimate Look At Shari Lewis

Many of us are familiar with the legacy of Shari Lewis and her entourage of loveable puppets. Even the most casual observer has probably watched at least a handful of Lamb Chop’s Play-Along or The Charlie Horse Music Pizza episodes. However, as with most beloved public figures, many people have probably never spent time learning about the woman responsible for these childhood memories. This is what the new documentary Shari and Lamb Chop is hoping to change. The film gives us a glimpse behind the curtain so we can get to know the woman behind the muppets.

Shari spent most of her life entertaining children beginning in the early 1950s. This means she was on the scene before the other notable figures in kiddie programming. Before Jim Henson, Fred Rogers, and even shows like The Mickey Mouse Club and Lassie, there was Shari Lewis. That is impressive enough on its own, but Shari was doing something completely unheard of at the time. Her ability to voice multiple characters at once as a ventriloquist and puppeteer is still a tough act to follow. The fact that she did it live with such speed and precision is also a sight to behold. However, Shari was more than just a famous child entertainer. 

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Shari and Lamb Chop paints an idyllic picture of Shari’s childhood. Her parents encouraged her to pursue every hobby or interest and would find her a teacher for all of them. Shari learned how to act, sing, and dance, and began showing promise as a ventriloquist at an early age. So much so that she started winning awards for her puppetry as a teen. This led to her getting her first show and eventually coming up with the idea of Lamb Chop. She had no way of knowing the lamb would become part of her identity as far as the public is concerned.

Filmmaker Lisa D’Apolito (Love, Gilda) does a great job of capturing what the world loved about Shari. However, Shari and Lamb Chop also sheds light on the icon’s low moments. We hear about the philandering husband her parents advised her to stay with. It also reminds us how talented Shari was outside of her puppetry. When Shariland was canceled, she appeared in various network TV series showcasing her acting chops. She also was a guest on multiple variety shows where she performed songs and dances for more adult audiences.

However, by then, people wanted Lamb Chop. Shari was never allowed to truly get away from the loveable muppet people associated with her. Shari tried infusing slightly more mature humor into the infamous lamb on her hand. The archival footage of tipsy Lamb Chop flirting with Dudley Moore is too precious for this world. This section shows how adaptable she was as a star, but is also a reminder to many of us that success looks different than we might imagine.

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D’Apolito has compiled one of the most charming documentaries I might see all year. We learn so much about Shari that it feels almost embarrassing to discover it over 25 years after her passing. For instance, Shari was always super close to her puppets because she was nearsighted. She was also a perfectionist. This explains how she became so good at working with two puppets at once while also being present as a person. These moments are shared by people who loved her and from archival footage. However, the most heartbreaking part of the documentary comes towards the end when her daughter recounts her final weeks.

Mallory started working with her mother during her renaissance on PBS in the 1990s. She spent her whole life knowing her mother was a consummate performer, so immediately noticed when she did not end her routines with the usual flourish. She also noticed when her mom stopped eating. When Shari went to a doctor, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and told she had six weeks to live.

Where most of us would wallow and probably stop functioning, Shari insisted on filming one last episode of The Charlie Horse Music Pizza. This episode was released posthumously on what would have been her 66th birthday. Listening to Mallory describe her mother struggling to still give her best performance even under the circumstances is a punch in the feelings. By the time Mallory recounts how her mother asked if she did well enough that they could at least fix it in editing, it is nearly impossible to not start sobbing.

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While the documentary does not shy away from some of the turmoil Shari experienced, it maintains a positive energy that feels akin to the warmth that radiated from Shari Lewis herself whenever she was on screen. This is helped by Shari and Lamb Chop including so many interviews with ventriloquists inspired by Shari. Hearing from the people who got into this art form because they watched her as kids and looked up to her takes a little bit of the sting out of the documentary for me. Not only can we assume she would be proud of them, but they are also able to break down just how impossible a two-puppet act is without the assistance of editing and special effects. Not only are they showing us that her legacy lives on, but they also remind us what a talent we lost with her passing.

As a kid who thought they were too cool for children’s programs, this documentary makes me want to go back in time. I would love to actually pay attention to the skill, drive, and talent Lewis showcased instead of taunting my little sister. This feel-good documentary is the perfect sendup to the feel-good art Shari Lewis put out during her time on this Earth. It is also a nice reminder to all of us that if we follow our passions, we are destined for great things. 

Did you catch Shari and Lamb Chop at this year’s Make Believe Festival? Then tell me what you thought of the film at @misssharai.

  • Sharai and Lamb Chop
3.5

Summary

While the documentary does not shy away from some of the turmoil Shari experienced, it maintains a positive energy that feels akin to the warmth that radiated from Shari Lewis herself whenever she was on screen in our youth.

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