Credited with providing the special spark that helped make Sharon, Lois & Bram one of the biggest kids' acts of the 1980s, Lilienstein was being remembered Thursday as a vivacious performer with a Broadway background and a knack for understanding how to entertain children.
Lilienstein died Wednesday of a rare form of cancer. She was 78.
"It's a shock. We've been together for 37 years — it's like a marriage," longtime collaborator Bram Morrison said Thursday, describing Lilienstein as "full of ideas and energy."
"She came from a different musical place than Sharon and me. Sharon and I came out of the folk music world and she came out of the Broadway world. So it was a very interesting combination and I think that partly explains the success that we had."
Fellow children's performer Raffi Cavoukian, known simply as Raffi, credited Lilienstein with giving him tips on what songs worked, and songs what didn't.
She had a knack for reaching the youngest audiences, said Cavoukian, who met Lilienstein in the mid-70s through the Toronto folk scene.
"She understood that children love movement. She was always the one saying: 'Don't forget the actions!'" Cavoukian recalled, also crediting her with introducing him to the song and movements of "The Hokey Pokey."
David Lilienstein said his mother died Wednesday at home in Toronto surrounded by friends and family. After being diagnosed last October, her health took a sudden downturn in recent weeks, he said.
"She knew it was happening, she was at peace with it, and she died very peacefully and not in pain," Lilienstein said Thursday as he recalled a childhood filled with music.
Morrison and Sharon Hampson, the other member of the trio, said they noticed a dramatic decline in their friend's health in recent weeks.
They visited every day to hold her hand and listen to music.
"We fought like sisters but we loved each other like sisters, too," said Hampson. "I just miss that relationship."
Fighting back tears, she described the bubbly blond as "a woman of many ideas" who "would do anything" for her audience and was never concerned about being embarrassed while performing.
Born in Chicago in July 1936, Lilienstein stood out with spirited dance moves in live performances of beloved tunes including "Skinnamarink," "Peanut Butter" and "I Am Slowly Going Crazy."
The trio formed in 1978 to record "One Elephant, Deux Elephants," introducing the world to an exuberant mix of nonsense rhymes, folk tunes, pop melodies and singing games.
Sharon, Lois & Bram further entrenched themselves as preschool stars with their CBC television series "The Elephant Show," which ran from 1984 to 1989. It also aired in the United States on Nickelodeon, where it was a consistent ratings draw.
Of the three group members, Lilienstein, especially, was "lively, smiling, and engaging," said Cavoukian.
"This is a sad day. I just extend all my love," Cavoukian said.
"The Elephant Show" aired for 65 episodes, each one ending with the fan favourite "Skinnamarink." In the late '90s the group returned to the screen with "Skinnamarink TV," which ran for 52 episodes.
Fellow entertainer Eric Nagler, who also appeared on "The Elephant Show," said he was struck by Lilienstein's "heart and her happiness."
"She was always a giving person. And a caring person," Nagler said. "I haven't seen her very often since our professional relationship ended but she has always carried a warm place in my heart."
Fred Penner, another fellow children's entertainer, marvelled at the trio's tight harmonies. He said he hadn't seen Lilienstein in a long time, noting she lost her heart in performing when her husband died.
"But she always had this really, really warm smile and a lovely human spirit that would come out and you'd feel that joy and love coming from her, always — even off-stage," said Penner.
Lilienstein retired in 1998 after the death of her husband, Ernest, while Hampson and Morrison continued touring.
Toronto city councillor Josh Matlow, who got to know the Lilienstein family when he worked to dedicate a Toronto playground in Sharon, Lois & Bram's honour, says he grew up with the group's music.
"She, along with Bram and Sharon, were part of the magic of our childhoods," Matlow said. "Their music played a very special role in so many of our lives. Even today, those of us who are in our 30s and 40s can still sing verbatim the lyrics of 'Skinnamarink.'
"Lois dedicated her career to making children the world over so happy by her music. And I think I know that we are all grateful."
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