Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Shari Lewis was a ventriloquist, symphony conductor, author, producer, and performer. She and her puppet friends won numerous awards. She was asked by former first ladies Nancy Reagan and Rosalyn Carter to be the sole performer at the annual White House Christmas party for the children of the Diplomatic Corps, and she emceed the annual White House Easter festival for the Bushes and the Clintons.
Shari Lewis was born Phyllis Hurwitz to Ann (Ritz) and Abraham Hurwitz on January 17, 1933, in New York City. Abraham Hurwitz was a founding professor of Yeshiva University of New York City. His lifelong specialty was encouraging children in their studies through play, a focus that his daughter continued. Lewis’s mother, a pianist, was one of six music coordinators for the Board of Education for the City of New York.
Shari took piano lessons from her mother starting at age two. A first marriage to Stan Lewis ended in divorce. In 1958 she married television producer and publishing executive Jeremy P. Tarcher. They had one daughter, Mallory, a writer of children’s books. Lewis’s imaginative offspring include the hand puppets Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse, and Hush Puppy.
With encouragement from both parents, Shari began performing at the age of thirteen when her father taught her magic acts with Jewish content: one candle multiplying to become eight candles to illustrate Hanukkah and a torn newspaper that, when restored, had the design of a Jewish star.
As a youth, she had lessons in acrobatics, juggling, piano, violin, and ventriloquism. She took her lessons in ventriloquism from John Cooper, with whom she would practice on a park bench. When she started performing ventriloquism, she added Old Testament tales to her repertoire. She studied piano and violin at New York’s High School of Music and Art, dance at the American School of Ballet, and acting with Sanford Meisner of the Neighborhood Playhouse. She attended Columbia University for one year, then left college to become a performer.