Thursday, March 16, 2006


Somewhere in the world today, Jerry Lewis is celebrating his 80th birthday. Well, Jerome Levitch is turning 80; Jerry Lewis is, as always, now and forever, nine years old.

Without knowing this anniversary was due to turn up, thoughts of Jerry have been occupying the back of my mind over the last few days, without me knowing why. On impulse, I've been reaching for my long-untouched copy of Shawn Levy's well-written biography KING OF COMEDY: THE LIFE AND ART OF JERRY LEWIS several times a day, randomly re-reading different parts -- and it rests horizontally across the tops of some other books on the highest of my shelves, so it's not the most easily reached book in my library. I recommend this clear-headed and responsible book; it paints a complex and divisibly endearing/highly unlikable portrait of the man, while revering the humanitarian and cutting the artist more of a break than he's often received in English.

The night before last, I went up into my attic to re-read a novel I needed to refresh my memory of, for an article I'm writing. I turned on the upstairs radio for some soft classical music accompaniment and -- cue TWILIGHT ZONE music -- found myself listening to "I Left My Heart at the (HONK HONK) Drive-In Movie," a riotous song performed by Jerry in his 1964 movie, THE PATSY. When I saw this movie for the first time a year or two ago, I laughed so hard at the scene of the recording of this song (with Jerry singing, and three Jerries in drag as the background singers), I momentarily thought I was going to die laughing. I had to reel myself back from the edge of hilarity like I was fighting the most vigorous marlin you can imagine. I'm scared to look at the scene again. Anyway, as the song ended, the disc jockey explained what it was and continued with an interview, already in progress, with Jerry Lewis himself... who was speaking from his hotel room, here in Cincinnati! He had apparently made an appearance here at the Aronoff Center which was a big success, and it was the first night of an extended stay.

Disc jockey: We just played "I Left My Heart at the Drive-In Movie" by Jerry Lewis, from his movie THE PATSY.

Jerry: I heard it.

Disc jockey: Jerry, that's a pretty wild song. Where did you ever find that?

Jerry: It's from THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I got it from Rodgers and Hammerstein. They had written it for that picture but it got cut out. I made them an offer, and I was delighted to have it...

(Dead silence from the disc jockey, who's actually bought this story.)

Jerry (loudly): It's a JOKE, you little cocker!

I didn't open the book I had intended to read for another 15 minutes. Instead, I sat in my attic listening to Jerry Lewis being interviewed. He was quick and caustic, suave one minute and cutting the next, and he spoke warmly about his many previous trips to Cincinnati. Once in 1942, again in 1948, and in 1950, when he and Dean Martin played the RKO Albee Theater, where my parents dated, and where I met the charming cashier I am still smooching to this day. "That was the last time I was here," Jerry said... but I knew darn well that he'd been here another time, when he starred in DAMN YANKEES, circa 1996. My sister-in-law had worked as a stagehand on that show, and she said that Jerry loved to go out onstage each night with a big laugh -- so he offered a nightly reward for anyone who could break him up the best. One night, as he stood in the wings awaiting his cue, she showed him a wind-up cow that convulsed, a toy belonging to my father-in-law. It convulsed the man who played Professor Julius Kelp, and he inscribed a gift photo for my father-in-law ("To Don -- Thanks for the Cow! Jerry Lewis") after the show. He treasured it.

That's the exact same photo, but without the inscription. (I told you the inscription; use your imagination -- it's good for you.)

Anyway, I sat there listening, figuring that Jerry must have starred in DAMN YANKEES in a dozen cities and just lost track of the fact that he'd been back in Cincinnati. Then I started thinking... if he was going to be in town for awhile, might I approach his people and request an interview? It's one of those things I think I'd love to do, but know I'd be afraid to do. I don't know if I could cut it, sitting in a room with Jerry Lewis, one-on-one. Could you? I mean, I like many of his movies, and love a few (like THE LADIES MAN, from which the two screen grabs in today's blog were derived) ... Would I still love them after meeting him?

It's hard to tell. I once saw Jerry Lewis profiled in one of those HOLLYWOOD AFTER DARK programs that used to run on AMC (back in the days when I watched AMC, when it was watchable). He was maybe 40 at the time and holed up in his office with some brand spanking new editing equipment. He spoke with fresh enthusiasm about filmmaking and new technology, and he seemed like a fascinating, open guy with whom I had much in common. Him I would have loved to meet, especially in that milieu. The 46 year-old Jerry Lewis who is interviewed on Disc 2 of the new DICK CAVETT SHOW: COMIC LEGENDS box set is a bit more cutting, not quite as mellow, but still approachable -- not as formidable and forbidding as the critical, lecturing, hectoring Buddy Love I've occasionally glimpsed on television, who makes a chilling surprise appearance in the final chapter of Levy's book.

As I continued to fantasize and fret about this suddenly possible meeting, reprieve abruptly came when it became clear that I was actually listening to an archival interview recorded a decade or so ago, back when Jerry was in town doing DAMN YANKEES. Whew, that was close.... but not really. It was a long time ago, actually; longer ago than it seems. Jerry had not yet gotten ill and swollen with Cushing's Syndrome, and my father-in-law was still alive.

I've never met Jerry Lewis. Maybe I never will, but that's alright. That way, he can always be the Jerry Lewis I want him to be, and the Jerry Lewis he wants himself to be, which is the Jerry he presents through his art. If you think about it, we've all met Jerry whenever we've seen his movies and read his books, and he's met us (well, don't let me speak for you: he's met me) in a way whenever he's heard audiences laugh and applaud. He is the most naturally talented clown of his generation, an inspired and visionary filmmaker who also happened to be possibly the greatest visual joke-teller of the sound era, the maker of some of the most psychologically rich and confrontational comedies ever, and also a soulful fantasist capable of dreaming up sweet little moments like his encounters with the puppets in THE ERRAND BOY -- and selling them onscreen, too. He's made some crap, but what? You and I haven't? I put him on the cover of the 100th issue of my magazine, which is no meager love letter, let me tell you.

So let me wrap this up by simply saying, "Happy birthday, Jerry, you schweet, schweet schweety-face." And, if you ever read this... don't hit!

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