Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Book Review: Toy Store in a Book by Shari Lewis

So why doesn't Shari Lewis get the puppeteer accolades that the guys in the Muppets do?  Is it because she was a ventriloquist, and therefore kind of a "novelty" act?  Is it because she specifically targeted a little-kid audience without any adult appeal?  Is it because her puns were so bad?  The bottom line is that back when Jim Henson was trying to grow a wispy teenage beard, Shari Lewis was already kickin' out the jams puppet-style.

It's always kind of a treat to see Muppet performers work their Muppets, if only because they're usually hidden.  But it's kind of awkward, too.  You're not sure if you should be watching the puppeteer or the puppet, and you're not really engaged with either of them completely, and you end up feeling like you missed the magic of the performance.  But now watch about seventeen seconds of anything Shari Lewis has ever done with Lamb Chop, and realize that she was out there, on-screen, just her and her puppets and the camera rolling, engaging her audience in her puppets and herself.

She's equally engaging -- when she's not even there! -- in Toy Store in a Book (1979), which I picked up at Booktowne in downtown Aitkin, Minnesota.

Hey, let's zoom in on her photo on the back cover:

This isn't the 80's/90's perm-fro phase of her look that I remember most vividly; but it's basically how she looks in a DVD I have of The Shari Show from 1975 (which I might review later, once I figure out how to take screen-shots of a DVD).  I might be kind of naive, but she couldn't have had any "work done" in the late 70's, could she?  I ask because she's got that exact face that connoisseurs of extreme plastic surgery seem to be aiming for (I'm thinking Michael Jackson, Joan Rivers, etc).  Even in the 80's, when she certainly could have had a lift or tweak or two, she was completely expressive in the way that plastic faces are incapable of.  Who knows.

Toy Store in a Book is a masterpiece of what I called the "rainy day" genre of kids' books in an earlier review.  Lots of art projects, stuff to cut out, stuff to glue and tape together and stick paper clips into, etc.  What's great about my copy is that, despite the big chunk of printing torn off of the back cover, whoever owned this book didn't alter it in any way -- each page is completely innocent of scissor or crayon.  That means that the previous owner either loved it or hated it: he/she loved the book so much that he/she couldn't "destroy" it and decided to simply admire it, or he/she begrudgingly thanked grandma for the neat-o book from the gas station and promptly stuck it on a shelf underneath a Troll doll.

The Introduction pretty well spells out what Shari was going for with this book:

Notice, about mid-way down, she mentions The Kids-Only Club Gang, and lists off a bunch of kids' names.  What's interesting about this list is that I know exactly who Mally is.  (Sorry, that probably sounded creepy.  Even though there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for my knowing who Mally is, there's certain things that don't sound right when adult white males say them.  Maybe the italics weren't a good choice.)

In 2010 we went to the Target Children's Book Festival, and one of the performers was Mally Lewis, Shari's daughter.  I know what you might be thinking, but she was actually really good.  She had the puppets' voices and characters down perfectly, sang exactly the kind of songs that Shari would sing to entertain kids, and even added some between-song banter aimed at the parents who grew up watching her mom (which I guess would be us).   It was a really good balance between "tribute show" and doing her own thing, which I'm sure is a difficult pitch to strike -- I think Zappa Plays Zappa would be a good comparison.  While Amy and Ez watched the last ten minutes or so of her performance, I got in line like a nerd-bergler to be one of the first to get Lamb Chop's autograph.

Anyway, remember when you'd have something you could cut out of a coloring book -- like a paper doll -- but you had to really consider what was on the other side of the page before you started hacking away?  What if there was a really cool picture of Grover on the other side of your Big Bird finger puppet?  What then my friend?  Well, Shari's got your back.  In a book filled with things to cut out, there's never a page where you'll ruin a different project by cutting something out.

This book must have been a nightmare to paginate and layout.  In some of the more complicated projects -- like the hang glider above -- there's actually things printed on both sides of the cutouts.  The quality-control staff at the printers were at the top of their game, because I've held these pages up to the light, and they match up either exactly, or close enough.  I could lay these pages out in a PDF for you, but I'm not even sure your home Desk Jet printer would line it up well enough.

I mentioned earlier that Shari Lewis is engaging in this book, even though it's just text.  In introducing the instructions for Nosey Rosey -- where you poke holes in this noseless face, thread string through the holes, and pull the string to make crazy nose shapes and sizes -- she says "Meet Nosey Rosey.  At least, she used to be called Nosey Rosey.  But she has lost her nose and would like you to make a new one for her."  She finishes off the instructions with, "I don't mean to be nosey, but did you enjoy helping Rosey pick out a nose?" Is it just me, or did you read these words in Shari Lewis' voice in your head, too?

As is evident by now, the illustrations are pure 70's gold -- like blacklight posters ordered from comic book ads, hung up next to your Milton Glaser illustration of Dylan.  One of them in particular -- "The Joker" -- wins the "Sign of the Times" award, and I don't have to explain why:

I'll end this review with something you'll thank me for later, when it's stuck in your head:
This is the song that doesn't end
Yes, it goes on and on my friends;
Some people started singing it not knowing what it was;
And they'll continue singing it forever just because 
This is the song that never ends...

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