Those of you who have even heard of this person.
Okay. Ready? One of my role models was Shari Lewis.
So who’s Shari Lewis? Younger readers will have no idea I’m sure.
Shari Lewis was a kids’ show host in the ‘50s-‘70s. She was also a ventriloquist. Remember the puppets Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse? Those were Shari Lewis’. They weren’t particularly hilarious but they were endearing.
And some other things about Shari Lewis: she won twelve Emmys, was a magician, juggler, singer, dancer, and was considered one of the finest ventriloquists in the world. Oh, and she co-wrote an episode of STAR TREK.
So why is she a role model?
See my annual post about being fired just before Christmas.) A friend was visiting and we went to Belmont Park, which is an old-time amusement park, complete with rickety roller coaster, a boardwalk, etc. It’s still open. Neither Sea World nor Legoland could kill it.
Well this was an afternoon in the middle of the week during August. Crowded it wasn’t. How it’s still open today I don’t know.
|Oh wait. Wrong lamb chop|
You see where this is going, don't you?
When it was time for the show to begin there were literally three people in the audience. Now remember, Shari Lewis at the time was a big name. She had done network shows for over a decade. She gave not one but two command performances for the Queen. And here she was, on a hot August afternoon in an amusement park performing for three idiots. Oh, and it was free admission. How much could she have been paid? I picture some supervisor handing her a big bag of quarters from the Whack-a-mole game.
I would not have blamed her if she had come out and said, “Sorry guys. I never do shows for audiences smaller than the number of puppets I have.”
Redd Fox essentially did just that once. He was a long-time nightclub comic who became the star of SANFORD & SON. As the story goes, he was playing in some Vegas showroom. It's the midnight show. There are four people in the house. The band plays the SANFORD & SON theme, he walks out on stage, surveys the audience, says something to the effect of "Four fucking people? I ain't plain' for four fucking people." He then walks off. The band again plays the SANFORD & SON theme, lights up in the auditorium. End of show, goodnight.
But that’s not what Shari Lewis did.
She came out and started her show.
At first, I have to admit, I was really uncomfortable. I felt so self-conscious. She was essentially doing her act just for me. And it’s not like I could leave.
But as her show continued my discomfort slowly gave way to admiration. Even though there were just three audience members, she was performing her heart out. It would have been so easy to just go at half-speed, drop a bunch of bits. But Shari went through her material with energy and class. (She probably did drop some of the jokes geared for kids but that's all the more reason to thank her.) There could have been 10,000 in the venue. I was in awe.
And the show itself was great. She was a phenomenal ventriloquist. I remember a bit she did with an auctioneer, puppets talking a mile a minute, she chiming in -- it was amazing. Another time she had her puppets sing and even yodel. How do you yodel without moving your lips?
When the show was over – and it was about 45 minutes. We stood up and gave her a standing ovation. And since it was just the three of us, my friend and I approached the stage, shook her hand, and told her how knocked out we were by her performance. I also joked that she should consider changing agents. She laughed.
But if ever there was the definition of a trouper; that was it. Over the years I’ve been on the radio in the middle of the night knowing no one was listening (a 15 inning Syracuse Chiefs game from Denver on a station that covered less territory than your Wifi router), been in an improv group that would occasionally play to audiences of seven, and wrote everyday for a blog that when I started out was being read by maybe ten people a week. But I always thought back to Shari Lewis. I learned from her that day what it means to be a consummate pro and I have emulated her ever since. Sadly, she left us way too soon. She was only 65 when she passed. But I'm proud to say she's one of my role models.
Do you have a surprising role model? If so, who and why? And can she yodel?