TORONTO – When children’s entertainers Sharon and Bram announced they were heading down the road to retirement they expected to draw interest with a series of farewell concerts.
But the pair say after 40 years of performing together — half of that as trio Sharon, Lois and Bram — they’re surprised at the sheer number of grownups who want to recapture their childhoods, a time when “The Elephant Show” regularly aired on CBC.
Some of them have their kids in tow, while others arrive in groups of adults ready to participate in the colourful sing-along songs.
And it’s not just the lifelong fans showing interest, Sharon Hampson says. Concert venues and event organizers are trying to book the duo before they officially wind down their schedules next year.
“We never anticipated the kind of response we’ve had — it’s huge,” Hampson says with her famously welcoming smile.
“The interest has come from far and wide.”
Hampson is sitting alongside Bram Morrison in his Toronto living room, which is layered with colourful folk art collected from his travels around the world. Many pieces are shaped like elephants, the group’s official mascot that danced alongside them for years on television.
Sharon, Lois and Bram weren’t exactly what you’d call hitmakers, but for a generation of kids, songs like “Skinnamarink,” “The Muffin Man” and “One Elephant,” seemed bigger than anything from Michael Jackson, Madonna or Prince.
After the concerts, Hampson says parents often confess they were once the pint-sized fans in their audience. Sometimes the conversations turn deeply emotional as people tearfully reflect on how Sharon, Lois and Bram were a welcome distraction in difficult childhoods. Other fans say the group’s music helped inspire careers in the arts.
Hearing those stories would probably be enough to motivate Sharon and Bram to continue traversing across the country for years to come, but like everyone else, they too are getting older.
“The road gets a little harder each year that goes by,” says Morrison, who turns 78 in December.
Hampson, who is three years younger, agrees with a nod.
“We’re not going to hit the road like we did years ago,” she adds.
“We’re too old and we don’t want to work like that. We want to do a little bit here, a little bit there.”
So they’re closing out with a leisurely run of dates across Canada before finishing off the tour next year.
Sharon and Bram will play Western Canada throughout November, including in Winnipeg (Nov. 11), Sherwood Park, Alta. (Nov. 16), two back-to-back shows in Calgary (both on Nov. 18) and Fort Nelson, B.C. (Nov. 22) before taking a break until the new year.
Next May, they’ll tackle the East Coast, though more concerts will probably be added between now and then.
Four new singles will be released over the next year as the parade marches onward. “The Colour Song” debuts on Friday and will be followed by two others before the grand finale — a new version of “Skinnamarink” that includes a verse about welcoming diversity, written by Hampson’s daughter.
A picture book called “Skinnamarink” closes out the celebration next September.
All this fanfare seems appropriate for a group that’s at the heart of 1980s children’s music canon — a fruitful era when Canadian musicians like Fred Penner graced TV screens as often as “Sesame Street,” and Raffi spun on the record player in many households.
Sharon, Lois and Bram sold more than three million copies of their albums worldwide; they played the White House when Bill Clinton was president and were appointed to the Order of Canada. “The Elephant Show” aired in repeats for years after it wrapped and saw a resurgence in popularity on Nickelodeon.
While most of their fans grew out of their music decades ago — leaving the kids’ market to a generation of newcomers — the trio continued playing shows across North America.
When Lois Lilienstein left the group after her husband’s death in 1998, Sharon and Bram reset themselves as a duo. Their audiences started to evolve as well.
“We see parents and grandparents come with little kids who don’t really know us because we’re not on television anymore,” Morrison says.
“They may know our voices, but they don’t know who we are — the parents do.”
It’s put Sharon and Bram in a unique role as children’s entertainers who largely appeal to adults. Their concerts offer a doorway to a simpler time for people hoping to forget their mortgage payments and 9-to-5 jobs, if only for a couple hours.
Many also fondly remember Sharon, Lois and Bram as a trio, which technically hasn’t existed for nearly 20 years. Lilienstein appeared on a few TV specials after her exit from showbusiness, but remained mostly absent from the group’s performances until she died of cancer in 2015.
Her loss sparked a renewed interest in their music and led some fans to revisit old albums.
To pay tribute, Hampson says most shows begin with video footage of the group’s heyday originally shown at Lilienstein’s memorial service.
“We know they miss her,” she says. “People tell us that all the time.”
Sharon and Bram don’t intend to leave the stage entirely once they’re retired.
They say it’s likely a charitable cause will draw them back into playing a few shows here and there. But they insist this goodbye tour isn’t a lark to drum up ticket sales, like Cher’s seemingly endless run of farewell shows or Elton John’s current three-year international finale.
Hampson has other plans in mind.
She wants to spend more time with her grown family; take yoga classes and travel the world. Morrison says he’s dedicated to cooking his way through a list of traditional family recipes passed down by his mother.
Together they’ll also reflect on the warmth of fans who’ve returned once again after all these years.
“It’s a way of telling us that what we did really worked for them and was significant,” she says.
“You couldn’t ask for more than that.”
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