Shari Lewis And Lillian Oppenheimer
Dorothy Engleman wrote to us yesterday to tell us the sad news that Shari Lewis had died. She suggested that I might fill in the details of Shari's association with Lillian Oppenheimer. When Shari Lewis was performing her shows on television , her material was really outside my age-range as a young man, but I do remember seeing Lamb Chop and the amazing way Shari had of bringing to life a puppet made from no more than her thumb an forefinger. A little later, after I came to know about Lillian and the Origami Center, Shari's name began to crop up more frequently. Once or twice, when I met Lillian, I asked her about Shari Lewis and how their books came about. So I am pleased to be able write a few notes about them.
Lillian was married to Harry Oppenheimer in 1954. It was a true love match and Lillian and Harry did everything together, from making music to flying round the world. On Saturday mornings they used to watch a children's television programme together. Shari Lewis was one of the stars of the show and Lillian was greatly impressed by her. Somewhat typically, Lillian was seized with an ambition to learn the art of ventriloquism. One day Lillian and Harry were watching the programme in the company of a friend, and when the credits came up, she realised that she know knew the producer of the show. This gave Lillian her contact and she was able to engineer a meeting with Shari Lewis.
I seems that Lillian wanted to learn to be a ventriloquist. Shari recommended that she should take lessons and gave Lillian the name of the best teacher in New York, the only one she could recommend. Lillian found the teacher and he arranged to visit her at her home in Grammercy Park. Lillian embarked on a course of ten lessons, which she paid for by taking a part-time position at Macey's department store. She sold ribbons by demonstrating how to make bows with them. Lillian related how thrilled she was to be actually earning money for herself, instead of having it provided for her by her husband ofrfamily.
We do not hear much more of Lillian's ventriloquism. Origami became her dominant passion, but she often combined the two hobbies by folding birds and animals and entertaining children by making her creations talk.
The Origami Center was founded as a limited series of classes on 6th October 1958 and was quickly accompanied by a newsletter called "The Origamian". The second issue contains a list of honorary members of the Origami Center and it is interesting that among them is Shari Lewis, of Television's "Hi Mom". Richard Bruno, Ventriloquist, is also listed a an honorary member. He must have been the teacher of ventriloquism to whom Shari Lewis sent Lillian.
Lillian said that Shari loved Origami and was able to introduce it into her television show, where the models were suited to her table-top approach. Shari said that Origami brought her a lot of extra fan mail.
Lillian visited Shari occasionally and gave her models to fold. In the "Lillian Oppenheimer Interview" in the Friends Newsletter for the Fall of 1992, Lillian recalled how Shari used to ask Lillian to meet her at the hairdressers and how they talked while she had her nails manicured! Then she put her head under the drier, picked up the script for her next show and the interview was over. Shari Lewis was certainly a highly organised business woman!
A year or two after the Origami Center was formed, Shari approached Lillian with a suggestion that they should join in writing a book about paperfolding and puppetry. She was already a successful writer with some fifty books to her credit so that she was confident she could arrange publication. Lillian readily agreed, but it was Shari who actually wrote the book; Lillian merely supplied the models. Even a chapter on teaching Origami was not actually written by Lillian, but was put together from someone's notes of a teaching session she had given.
Harry Oppenheimer died early in 1962 and "Folding Paper Puppets", under the joint names of Shari Lewis and Lillian Oppenheimer came out later in the same year. It was dedicated "To the Joyous Memory of Harry Oppenh=
"Folding Paper Puppets" was followed by "Folding paper Toys" in 1963 and by "Folding Paper Masks" in 1965. "Folding paper masks included models by Giuseppe Baggi, the extraordinary paperfolder with a spontaneous talent, who used to attend meetings of the origami Center. As before,, Shari Lewis wrote the books, while Lillian supplied the models.
It was through publicity for the books that Lillian was invited to appear on television and became known as "The Origami Lady". Another visitor to the same studio was Alice Grey and it was indirectly through this that Lillian and Alice became acquainted. But that is another story.
Following Harry's death Lillian, the full life that they had led together came to an end and Lillian began to feel restless.. She moved to live in Greenwich Village and saw an advertisement about puppetry in a paper circulating in the village, not far from her new home. So she decided to go along to a meeting. As Shari Lewis had amply demonstrated, puppetry was a natural extension of ventriloquism and Origami fitted in with both. Lillian learnt how to manipulate puppets and her new interest soon came to rival her interest in Origami to the extent , It seems, that at one time Origami was in danger of being completely displaced. Lillian had a full-scale puppet theatre built in her apartment and held frequent puppetry meetings there. She became one of the founder members of the Puppetry Guild of Greater New York. Nevertheless, Lillian continued to hold paperfolding sessions once a month on "Origami Mondays" and in the end, it was for Origami that Lillian will always be remembered.
As Shari Lewis smiles out from the pages of the three books she co-authored with Lillian Oppenheimer, it is hard to think of her reaching old age. However, it is also hard to realise that on 6th October of this year, it will be forty years since the Origami Center was founded and on 24th October we will be celebrating the 100th birthday of Lillian. Both Lillian and Shari and Lamb Chop will be forever young in our memories.