Kool Kat of the Week: Mallory Lewis Loves Her Life with Lamb Chop

Posted on: Apr 24th, 2014 By:

Mallory Lewis and Lamb Chop.

When ATLRetro heard that Shari Lewis’s daughter Mallory would be bringing the world’s most famous sock puppet Lamb Chop to the Center for Puppetry Arts for a new show LAMB CHOP 2.0 this Saturday April 26 at 3 p.m., we knew we had our Kool Kat of the Week.

Before the Muppets, Lamb Chop and Shari Lewis were household names. Then in the 1990s, a whole new generation was introduced the world’s most famous sock puppet with the PBS series LAMB CHOP’S PLAY ALONG. Mallory’s visit was prompted by a new Lamb Chop US Commemorative Postage Stamp, which will be launched at the Center on Friday. Her Saturday show, part of the Center’s National Day of Puppetry celebration, includes not just a Lamb Chop performance, carrying on her mother’s legacy, but also anecdotes, clips and an audience Q&A about life with her mom and the world’s most famous sock puppet!

Needless to say, ATLRetro had plenty of questions of our own, so we nabbed an exclusive interview with Mallory, whom we found out quickly was as cool and fun as her celebrity mom. If you think you have to be a kid to go see her, well, she’ll quickly set you straight. As she says below, her audiences typically are the adults, aka big kids, like us. Oh, and yes we sure did ask her about her mom’s STAR TREK connection and found out that there actually are two!

ATLRetro: What’s your earliest memory of Lamb Chop?

Mallory Lewis: I don’t know the first, but there was always Lamb Chop in my life. My mom put her in my crib when I was a baby, and I put her in my son’s crib when he was a baby.

When you were little, did you think Lamb Chop was real?

I don’t even know what you’re talking about. Of course, Lamb Chop’s real. Funny story about my son though. My son is a straight A student, always has been, top private school, really smart. He was about 10, and we were coming back from a gig and Lamb Chop was in the trunk of the car and my husband was driving. And Jamie said, “you know, Mom, I don’t think Lamb Chop was as funny today.” I said, “oh, OK.” Then all of a sudden his eyes got really big, and he goes, “do you think she could hear me in the way, way back? I don’t want to hurt her feelings.” I said, “no, I don’t think she could hear you, sweetie.” So Lamb Chop is very real to our family.

Were the ‘60s really the prime of Lamb Chop’s fame?

Not really. Mom went on TV in 1956 and went off TV in 1999. LAMB CHOP’S PLAY ALONG years were the second wave. That’s was the ’90s when she was on PBS every single day. That’s why my audiences tend to be adults because the 20somethings all grew up with Lamb Chop and the ever-present song that doesn’t end. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy performing for the troops so much because they remember Lamb Chop and it’s a very happy time in their life as opposed to the current time in their life where people are shooting at them.

But there was a period between the original show and the rebirth in the ‘90s when Lamb Chop was not on the air? What brought Lamb Chop back?

My mother’s indomitable will. During the years when she didn’t have a series, she performed at state fairs, she wrote 60 books, she conducted symphonies. She was simply not going to not come back.

Why do you think Lamb Chop bridges the generations? Lamb Chop in the ’50s and the ’60s and Lamb Chop in the ’90s and now?

What’s so interesting about Lamb Chop is she’s one of the great characters on television or in media. She is as real as character to people as Alan Alda’s [Hawkeye] was on M*A*S*H. And it is sort of the purity of her character—I don’t man purity in a religious way—but the honesty of who she is as a character that resonates with people. She says things that everybody wishes they could say.

When you were growing up, you met a lot of celebrities. Do you have a favorite memory of meeting someone famous?

I have two favorites. When I was five years old, I was terrified of THE WIZARD OF OZ. It was the scariest movie on the planet. I came into my house, and [Margaret Hamilton] the woman who played the Wicked Witch was sitting in the living room. I took one look at her and screamed and went running upstairs. My mother was like “Margaret, I am so sorry!” Margaret was like “that’s OK, it happens to me all the time.” The other was coming into the house when I was older, but not a lot older, and Tiny Tim was sitting in my living room playing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” on his ukulele.

You traveled a lot when your mother was on tour with Lamb Chop. What were some of the more exotic places you got to go?

Well, Mom used to every year trade her services at the Aloha Bowl. She would do the half-time show and trade it for a vacation in Hawaii, so that was fun. I do a lot more exotic travel with Lamb Chop now than I did as a child. I rode through Africa on horseback going from Masai village to Masai village performing with Lamb Chop. It was very interesting. They have no history of puppetry. They don’t know what ventriloquism is. So I pretty much made children cry in each village until they got to know me.

I take my son almost everywhere with me, and one of the reasons I started doing Lamb Chop is I wanted my son to understand who his Grandma was to people and what Lamb Chop meant to people. The only way to do that was to keep her alive. She’s been such a blessing. I was eight weeks pregnant when Mom died. My son is 15 now. But he knows who she is through all the performances.

Can you tell us a bit about the show on Saturday?

The show that I do now is a hybrid show. It’s half me and Lamb Chop performing and half me telling stories about Mom and showing videos. Little kids love the show, no question, but my audience is usually 80% adults. Five people in a family will drag one three-year-old to the show. The three-year-old has no idea who Lamb Chop is, and the five adults stand in line to meet her afterwards. My show stars me and Lamb Chop and Mom, and that’s really fun.

Mallory Lewis and Lamb Chop with Nicolosi, the artist behind the Shari Lewis US Commemorative Stamp.

There’s a Q&A at the end. Are you surprised by the questions people come up with?

No, people often will tell me that they had a very bad childhood and that my mother was the adult that they loved the most in their childhood. She was the one who made them feel that it all was going to be OK. So that’s really the nicest thing.

Do you have anything special planned for the Center for Puppetry Arts?

Well, yeah, I do, because the day before on April 25, Mom is getting a US Commemorative Postage Stamp. The artist who painted it is a gentleman named Nicolosi. Remember that show, INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO? This show at the Center has some elements of that where I am going to be interviewed, and then there’s the Q&A also at the end of the show. So it’s going to be unusual in that I don’t normally perform with any other live people on stage. I will be singing, there will be comedy, there will be video and there will be questions. , magic

How did you transition to performing with Lamb Chop? Was it a challenge or a natural experience?

Totally natural. When mom died, if I hadn’t picked up Lamb Chop, then Lamb Chop would have died, too. So that was not possible. I couldn’t let that happen. I was at an event where Mom was getting a posthumous award, and I tucked her in the podium first because I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it. I put her on, and she just said “Thank you so much. Shari would be so proud.” Then there was this silence, and then there was a gasp. And then there was all this applause. I thought, I like this.

I never had to learn how to do Lamb Chop. I had to learn the material, and I had to learn stage presence. So I did a two-three minute show at the LA Zoo, then a five-minute show. Then I started performing at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. It just sort of grew that way. One of my favorite shows was the last time I was at the Center for Puppetry Arts four years ago. I performed in front of a huge crowd of thousands of people [at the Ferst Center]. It was so wonderful because [the audience] was all puppeteers. Anyway I was so scared because the group that is going to criticize you the most are your peers. And everyone was so kind. Vince [Anthony, founder of the Center] came up to me afterwards and said, “That was a triumph.” One of those memories in my life that makes me the happiest is when I think of that.

A scene from the STAR TREK episode, "The Lights of Zetar."

What do you think about the role of the Center for Puppetry Arts?

It is the classiest place in the country for puppets. The curating that they do of the Henson characters and all the characters is magnificent. The shows that they bring in are such high quality. It is such a treasure to have such a cross between a museum and a performing arts center and a boutique educational center. You can experience puppets any way that you want to there. You can look at them. You can watch them. And you can learn things about them. I think it’s a really valuable place, and it’s run very beautifully. I could have debuted this and had the stamp unveiling any place in the country and I chose the Center because I think it’s such a valuable place in our society.

I want to ask you one non-Lamb Chop question. You would have been very small, but what can you tell us about your mother’s experience co-writing a STAR TREK episode, The Lights of Zetar”?

Yes, I’ll tell you a STAR TREK story. My family are complete STAR TREK geeks and DOCTOR WHO. Total geeks. I want a DOCTOR WHO movie to come out so badly, and I would like to be a Companion. My mom wrote that STAR TREK episode with the intention of starring in it as Lieutenant Mira Romaine, and three weeks before the show shot, the producer’s or director’s girlfriend got the role. It was something my mother never got over. She was mad about that for her entire life.

My uncle Lan O’Kun created the character of Lwaxana Troi, Deanna Troi’s mother. What’s funny is my whole life people have said that character reminds them of me—the wacky mom—and all the women in my family. I didn’t know my uncle had created that character until two months ago. Now it makes sense as to why that character rings so true.

Click here to find more info or purchase tickets to LAMB CHOP 2.0.

 

Category: Kool Kat of the Week | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Kool Kat of the Week: Growing Up in a World of Pure Imagination: Heather Henson Talks About Her Jim Henson Connection and Sings Along with The MUPPET MOVIE to Celebrate The Center for Puppetry Arts’ 35th Anniversary

Posted on: Sep 19th, 2013 By:

Kermit, Jim Henson and daughter Heather Henson at the grand opening of the Center for Puppetry Arts, 1978. Photo credit: Center for Puppetry Arts.

When Kool Kat of the Week Heather Henson was just seven, she accompanied her famous father, Jim Henson, the creator of The Muppets, to the 1978 ribbon-cutting of The Center for Puppetry Arts. Today the Center is world-renowned, and the youngest of the five Henson children is coming back this Saturday September 21 at 4 p.m. to lead an audience singalong with the original THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979), just one highlight of the Center’s 35th Anniversary Celebration (Sept. 21-23).

A puppeteer extraordinaire in her own right, Heather founded and directs Ibex Puppetry, an Orlando, Florida-based entertainment company which among other activities, produces the annual Orlando Puppet Festival, the HANDMADE PUPPET DREAMS film series, the Puppet Slam Network and original environmental theatre spectacles. In that role, she’ll be teaching a Community Building Through Puppetry Workshop at the Center, too, on Mon. Sept. 23 from 7-9 p.m. She serves on the boards of the Jim Henson Foundation, the Jim Henson Legacy and the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center.

We caught up with Heather to find out what it was like growing up with such a creative dad, her own road to puppetry, why she’s so jazzed about her recent environmental projects and why to really feel that Rainbow Connection, you and your family should consider costuming as Muppets when you come to the Center on Saturday!

ATLRetro: Being the baby of the Henson family sounds like it has to have been a magical experience. Was your father as imaginative in playing with you as he has been in his public creative life, and do you have a favorite memory of that?

Heather Henson: Yes, he was very imaginative as a dad. We grew up in a house with a ton of crafts projects. You know, today you can get just go to Michael’s and find all these crafts projects out of a box, Michael’s didn’t exist when we were kids. We just had all these craft supplies. We had the little rock tumblers, a silk screen, an enameling oven, a weaving station and an animation station so we could do stop-motion animation. The whole basement was like a crafts project laboratory. So that was really, really, really fun.

That playpen downstairs was amazing. I do a little PowerPoint presentation called “A Daughter Remembers,” and I show some pictures from that basement. We had a set of wooden boxes that were numbered one through 10. I think he must have done them around the same time as SESAME STREET because I look at the counting films and they look so much like that. He painted them in this beautiful limited color palate of the ‘60s—I think it was pink, orange and yellow. On one side, it would have a number, and on the other side us kids got to paint whatever they wanted—animals or insects of that number. It was like one elephant, two butterflies, three horses, four cats. They were so cute. I love those boxes. Again no Michael’s, no Hobby Lobby, no IKEA.

Heather Henson promises a carnival sense of fun at THE MUPPET MOVIE singalongs. Photo credit: Ibex Puppetry.

Did you always know that you’d go into puppetry, too? Or did you ever rebel, and say, no, I’m going to be a fill-in-the-blank?!

Well, I went to college for animation. I guess in high school, I wanted to get into politics, not to become a politician but I liked international relations. I actually still do. A big love of mine is the way that different countries, different cultures come together. In high school, I thought that fell under a political science major. That was the only thing I could think of that would allow me to study other cultures other than anthropology. Right now, I do puppet shows internationally, and that’s still my favorite thing—to go into other cultures and see those relationships.

But then I guess I started college studying art. I thought for a while I could be a political cartoonist. Then I went into, no, I’ll do animation and illustrations, and I wound up right back at puppetry. It took a little bit of a roundabout way, but it’s a total circle. My final project I did in college was in animation, and then when I got out of college, I re-told the story with puppets. I actually found it was a much more satisfying process—the build process and especially delivering it to an audience. Having the live feedback of an audience and the communication between performer and audience was much more satisfying. But it came about from a very personal process. It was not like I’m the daughter of a puppeteer, I have to be a puppeteer.

Photo credit: Ibex Puppetry.

You’ve got your hands on the strings of a lot of projects from IBEX Puppetry to the boards of various Henson-related foundations. What’s one thing you’re especially excited about that you’re doing right now?

The environmental spectacle shows and trying to do them internationally. I do shows without words. We just came back from a puppet festival in Indonesia where we performed CELEBRATION OF FLIGHT, and I’m most excited to do this for an international audience in ways that are also helpful and are of benefit for the community that we go into. I try to make our shows informative about the environment but not going into someone else’s culture and being preachy.

I like to do that for my own community, too. Right now I am in Milwaukee because we are going to be presenting CELEBRATION OF FLIGHT at the International Crane Foundation gala next week. This group does a lot of education about cranes and wetlands. Crane education is really about habitat restoration because cranes need wetlands and the wetlands are being destroyed. They are advocates for the cranes, but they are really advocates for the environment. So I am presenting this show to them and to a school. That’s the work I’m really excited about—trying to do stuff that is being an advocate for the environment. If it’s at all possible that I can use my energies in that direction, that’s exciting to me.

As a child, you attended the ribbon-cutting of the Center for Puppetry Arts.

I know!

Jim, Heather and Jane Henson at the Center for Puppetry Arts opening, 1978. Photo credit: Center for Puppetry Arts.

What do you recall about that day and how does the Center fit into preserving your father’s legacy today and into the future?

I cannot recall anything about that day. I look at that photograph, and I remember the Snoopy sweatshirt that I was wearing. It was one of my favorite sweatshirts. I look at that picture, and I can see that I am wearing SESAME STREET Big Bird corduroy pants, and I remember those pants. I look at that picture and I can remember my clothes.

September 24 was my dad’s birthday. What was amazing about this story was that my dad was in the middle of shooting THE MUPPET MOVIE in LA, which was the first movie that they had. This was like his company’s ultimate creative success at this point. My dad had worked so hard pitching the Muppets to an adult audience for so long, and [THE MUPPET SHOW (1976-81)] was finally picked up in London, and as soon as it was on the air, it became a huge hit. Now he got that opportunity to make THE MUPPET MOVIE. The movie is not about THE MUPPET SHOW, which was based on vaudeville theater in London; it is about the Muppets coming together to make millions of people happy. They all find each other, and they say we’re going to work together, and at the end, they make it to Hollywood. It’s so beautiful.

So my dad was in the middle of making that movie, and that’s when the Center for Puppetry Arts opened. My dad left that movie to come to the opening on his birthday. He didn’t even tell Vince [Anthony, founding executive director of the Center for Puppetry Arts] it was his birthday.

So he thought the Center was pretty cool; it was a sure sign that he thought that something special was happening here?

Yes, he thought it was worth coming to. It’s like, oh, my God, he’s in the culmination, in such a peak in his creative career, and he stops what he’s doing and comes to Atlantato open the Center. It means he really believe the Center was an important place.

The grande finale of THE MUPPET MOVIE. Photo credit: Jim Henson Company/Walt Disney.

Coming back to THE MUPPET MOVIE, what’s your favorite part or scene and why?

It’s such a beautiful movie, by far my favorite of the lot of them. All of them have a special place in my heart, but that one I love just because how pure the message is, how clean the story is. It’s just all these amazing, idealistic people that came together, such as Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher who wrote some amazing music.

My favorite part is the ending, “The Rainbow Connection.” [The Muppets] are so excited, they’ve made it to Hollywood and they’re finally getting a chance to their movie. It all crashes down and then the rainbow comes through. It’s so beautiful.

Can you share a little bit about what’s happening on Saturday and why folks who grew up with the Muppets should attend and bring their children?

And dress up! We’ve got to tell people that they can dress up! Come dressed up as Muppets, and we’ll bring you up on stage.

We’ve found the show works so well for all audiences because the kids like it, the adults like it. We’re getting a lot of kids that are seeing it for the first time. I can’t tell you how many times people say they loved the movie as kids, and now they are bringing their kids. Sometimes the kids know SESAME STREET but don’t really know the rest of the Muppet gang. Or sometimes the parents will show the kids the movie before coming, so the kids will already know all the movie and the lyrics. It’s really funny. The parents and kids can enjoy it together. It’s a big party. It’s a big laugh. We have a really good time. We’re really loud. It’s just like a big carnival for a couple of hours. We sing and dance and just revel in the joy.

You’re also doing a workshop on Monday.

Yeah, it’s a webinar, and it’s on community engagement. Megan Boye and I are doing it together. I don’t just like making shows that are one-sided. I like doing things that are interactive. We are giving audiences things to do, to dance and sing and play. It all started with THE MUPPET MOVIE singalong, and then the LABYRINTH singalong. We’ve added this interactive element to a lot of our [IBEX’s] shows.

We have this whole show called ENDANGERED SPECIES PARADE. We book it like a show, but it’s more like we bring a whole presence to your event. We set up a musical station where kids can play instruments. We set up a tableau of all of our puppets, a display where you can walk around and see them. We set up workshops where you can make puppets. And every hour or couple of hours, depending on how often the venue wants us to do it, we do a parade where we pick up a puppet and we parade around. That type of engagement is something we now do in a lot of our shows, so we’ll talk about how we do that.

Finally, in a world of CGI, where do you see the future of puppetry as an art form? Do you have concerns or do you think it has a special quality that will keep it vibrant and sought-after?

I deal with some film and video, but right now only in my HANDMADE PUPPET DREAMS film series, which is another project of mine that I bring to Atlanta to the Center for Puppetry Arts every year. In my personal work, I don’t do much film work, but when I do film it’s all about practical objects. CGI has been beautiful in a lot of areas, and my brother Brian [Henson] is really into it. I know the Jim Henson Company has invested a lot of time and money and energy into it.

I’m not that scared of [CGI] because I think also the pendulums will always swing. People are interested in new technology, but at the same time, they’re interested in real things, too. Lately I’ve been into live things, so I guess CGI has a place there, too—I guess I have seen live events with CGI creatures—but it really hasn’t come into my world that much yet. But no, I don’t have concerns. I think people are always going to want the craftsmanship of the built physical thing. There’s always a place for that because you want something real in front of you.

Category: Kool Kat of the Week | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

© 2019 ATLRetro. All Rights Reserved. This blog is powered by Wordpress