“They were the last, great comedy team to emerge from the last gasp of vaudeville. They bridged the gap between live, theatrical entertainment and live television when the medium was in its infancy. They didn’t break a mold because they had none, preferring to perform fresh, ad-libbing and breaking character constantly. Instinctual performers who worked together from the moment they met “as though they’d been twins separated at birth who then found each other twenty-five years later.”” (Jerry Lewis / Kings of Comedy)
I post this tribute to Jerry Lewis, who celebrates his 88th birthday tomorrow (March 16, 1926) as much to honor him as I do to honor my mother. She adores him. Being that she never quite got a grasp of the English language she’s always gravitated toward entertainers that appeared in film and television who had a gift for the physical. In order for her to follow the narrative films have to be action-packed and comedy has to be over the top. Although we can easily turn on subtitles in any language on most televisions today, that wasn’t the case many moons ago when we arrived in this country and she first laid eyes on Jerry Lewis. The connection was instant because no one was more over the top than Jerry Lewis. Also worthy of note and not too coincidentally, my mother’s favorite singer is Dean Martin. So it’s understandable how the Martin and Lewis “act,” which is featured in this post, got to be tops in her book.
My mother’s love and admiration for Jerry Lewis is not unique, nor is it surprising as I mentioned. Lewis’ brand of physical comedy lends itself to enjoyment by everyone regardless of language or culture. That’s why when the internationally celebrated legend is honored at next month’s TCM Classic Film Festival (TCMFF) the world’s eyes are likely to be set on Hollywood and a world-famous courtyard as Lewis’ hand and footprints are enshrined in concrete for posterity. It’s an honor that is long overdue, by the way. The ceremony at the courtyard of the TCL Chinese Theatre, which is scheduled to take place on Saturday, April 12 will be followed by a special screening of The Nutty Professor (1963), a film that features Jerry Lewis both as star and director. The screening will be preceded by a Lewis interview conducted by Illeana Douglas and followed by an audience Q and A session.
Through the years I’ve heard the word “genius” in relation to Jerry Lewis countless times and never gave it much thought. It’s an overused word and, although I’ve always enjoyed Lewis in his films and have admired him for his humanitarian work, I didn’t recognize his genius for years. That is until I began to seek out clips of the early years of Martin and Lewis on stage and on television and radio. It didn’t take long for me to recognize the genius of Jerry Lewis after a mere few moments then. We’re talking about a mesmerizing exuberance and an unequaled talent for ad-libbing – spur-of-the-moment comedy as I’ve never seen. Whether on stage or in front of a camera (on TV) Martin and Lewis, it seems, rarely stuck to a script. Jerry in particular was inclined to break the fourth wall, a gift that drew an audience right into the show, making it a part of whatever it was that the two were doing, a part of the act. While on stage no one was safe from the Martin and Lewis comedic wrath – not a prop guy or an orchestra leader. As you may see below, it was often a part of their nightclub act that members of the orchestra were abused, made fools of. While clearly all in fun and very funny it’s often hard to believe these people put up with the shenanigans. And I wish I’d been able to be a part of that audience, feel the energy that must have jumped off those stages.
It must be noted that although Jerry is the more outrageous of the two, Martin and Lewis would not have worked without the balance Dean brought to the table. The perfect foil, straight man and partner to Jerry to whom the latter has always given credit for impeccable timing. They were perfection in the most imperfect act I’ve ever seen.
“Other comedy teams never generated anything like the hysteria that (Dean Martin) and I did, and that was because we had that X factor–the powerful feeling between us. And it really was an X factor, a kind of mystery.”
Live, on stage…
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had been performing together only a few months before they were signed to do a live show at the Copacabana in New York City. They did three shows a night and performed in front of the elite of New York and Hollywood. Resulting from their success at the Copacabana they made their West Coast debut with a four-week engagement at one of the premier nightclubs in Hollywood at the time, Slapsy Maxie’s. This was the summer of 1948. Their success and popularity, selling out the 1,800-seat house at Maxie’s every night with everyone who was anyone in Hollywood regularly in attendance led to a contract with Paramount Pictures. Lewis recalls looking down from the stage and seeing the biggest stars at Warner Bros. occupying a table – Davis, Bogart, Cagney, Leslie, Morgan – for photo ops. The studio had bought out the table because the Martin and Lewis act was the place to be seen.
Here’s a taping of Martin and Lewis doing their nightclub act at the Copacabana in New York:
On the radio…
Martin and Lewis had been working together for about three years when they were offered the Chesterfield Radio Show. The two had met while 16-year-old Lewis was appearing in The Glass Hat at the Belmont Plaza Hotel in New York. Dean was on a weekly radio show and staying at the Belmont Plaza for free as payment for his radio work. Lewis recalls he was in the hotel coffee shop having a “very loose” egg salad sandwich when he bit into the sandwich and most of the egg salad ended up on his shirt and tie. Sitting near him was a handsome guy laughing and as Lewis turned his head the man told him to “Lick it.” Jerry did just that and felt an instant connection with one he’d consider a big brother and friend.
While it was a natural transition in show business at the time that Martin and Lewis would turn their talent to the radio airwaves, the two weren’t too enthusiastic about the prospect when Chesterfield approached them. Their act was a physical one, as Lewis described it was “a handsome man and a monkey” on stage in an act where anything went. But, But, the two agreed to do the show because there was no denying radio was the way to get national exposure and a natural way up the latter in the business.
In the beginning the greatest stars of stage and screen appeared on the Martin and Lewis radio show and the duo basically did what Lewis would describe as “radio jokes” like Bob Hope did. But that wasn’t really what they were good at. Soon enough, Lewis remembers, the guest stars went from Lucille Ball, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, and Gloria Swanson to Billy Barty. Needless to say Martin and Lewis didn’t enjoy doing radio because they “had to do nothing but read material from a page,” compared to their usual physical schtick. Well, they may not have been thrilled, but some of these are fun! This link will take you to an episode of “The Martin and Lewis Show” with guest star Marilyn Monroe.
As was the case with radio, Jerry Lewis turned down the initial offer from Pat Weaver at NBC to do a Martin and Lewis television variety show. Lewis was sure a weekly show would make their act stale, be too demanding as far as keeping the act fresh and it would leave little time for other things. Luckily, Weaver had also approached Abbott and Costello, Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn and a few others who’d also tuned him down. So a plan was devised to set up a comedy/variety show with a rotating schedule so each popular comedian or act rotated throughout the season. Each act got to do eight shows a season with each installment six weeks apart. That turned out to be “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” which was filmed either from the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood or the International Theater in New York.
Of the comedians that showcased “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” Martin and Lewis reigned supreme beating the normally unbeatable Ed Sullivan a total of forty-eight times. They were the only act to do so. Martin and Lewis did the Colgate Show for seven years and had the biggest stars of stage and screen on each week to supplement the standard material which featured the duo. The standard fare was two skits for the pair and two songs for Dean. Jerry, ever the great storyteller, recalls the excitement of having Ethel Merman on, “but of course no one could hear for a week afterwards.” And remembers the sponsors insisted the pair do live commercials each week, which was the practice at the time. They tried it once. Only once. Dean did the set up – “Colgate is the best, isn’t that right, Jerry? / Yes! Brush your teeth with Ajax.” They taped all future commercials.
Here’s an episode of “The Colgate Comedy Hour”:
Television writing legend, Norman Lear was one of the writers on “The Colgate Comedy Hour” and of the shows featuring Martin and Lewis he said: (paraphrasing), “With today’s media environment it’s difficult to describe how big Martin and Lewis were. The constantly revolving news stories that result from a 24-hour news cycle didn’t exist then so at the time all of America was focused on that one show and Jerry Lewis (in particular).” Of Jerry’s talent, “Jerry Lewis is a genius and his spontaneity always resulted in big laughs.” That’s not to say, however, that Lear – as one of the writers – was always thrilled with changes to what he’d written. But he’d never argue that comically Lewis always made the right choice.
While working on “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” Martin and Lewis were also working in pictures with Hal Wallis at Paramount most of which, in Jerry’s own words featured Dean as the straight man, love interest for the leading lady and Jerry as the crazy kid. Incidentally, these are the movies my mother loves. The two were at the top of their game and at the height of their popularity as seen in the following clip, which features a special Friar’s Club ceremony in honor of Martin and Lewis’ talent and charitable work.
Dean and Jerry made a total of sixteen films together at Paramount and walked away from “Martin and Lewis” when they were at the top, making two films a year, performing in sold out houses and were one of the most popular acts on television. After they split Jerry stayed at Paramount and Dean went on to work at Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
After ten years together one of the greatest teams in show business history called it quits on July 25, 1956. Martin and Lewis were scheduled to do a 2:30 am show at the Copacabana, the last of the three shows that night, which turned out to be the final show of Martin and Lewis. Ever. The two men didn’t speak for twenty years, a silence broken by Frank Sinatra who orchestrated a reunion in 1976 when he brought Dean out as Jerry was on stage during the Jerry Lewis MDA telethon. I remember that special moment.
I’m not sure why I’ve never really been interested much in the why of the Martin and Lewis split, preferring to always think of them as together, convenient because I’ve continued to watch them together through the years in their movies and later in all the clips and radio shows I could get my hands on. So in my mind and heart they simply never broke up. If you happen to want to know details of the split from Lewis’ perspective take a look at his Dean and Me: (A Love Story) in which he tells the tale of their partnership – from the good to the great to the bad.
Dean Martin died on December 25, 1995 and according to Jerry Lewis they remained in contact until then after the 1976 Sinatra reunion.
I honor Jerry Lewis (and Dean) in this post by focussing on the era of his career that most fascinates me, when his raw, unique talent was most evident in my opinion. While I enjoy Lewis’ films, I think they never quite showcased his gifts properly because scripted material tended to stifle his innate, unbridled energy, which is what makes him one of comedy’s greats. But, that’s my preference. Just as Dean did after the split, Jerry went on to accomplish many things in his career as a solo performer and received recognition as both an actor and director in both film and television.
“If you forget about it celebrity is wonderful.”
I can think of no one who has used his/her celebrity for good more effectively than Jerry Lewis and he has been appropriately recognized for all of his charitable and humanitarian work through the years. You can read about those honors in the TCM press release announcing Lewis’ appearance at the TCMFF here.
To me, aside from the talent and humanitarian work, Lewis has also always represented Hollywood royalty, partly due to memories I have of watching his MDA telethon during years when it was – in a child’s mind – as much a showcase of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the talent of Broadway and entertainers whose names appeared in the lights of Vegas as it was about a cause. I stayed up for the entire night every single year to watch the greats Jerry called friends appear on my television, my only connection to show business aside from “Rona Barrett’s Hollywood” magazine on which I spent whatever money I got my hands on. In any case, in one way or another Jerry Lewis is responsible for many fond memories in my life and I hope I get a glimpse of him, if not a picture at TCMFF.
Here’s to you, Jerry. Thanks for my making my mother laugh and Happy birthday.
All Jerry Lewis quotes and comments included are from Emmy TV Legends interviews and The Kings of Comedy documentary.