I first met the great Jerry Lewis in 1962 when he and my friend, actress Jayne Mansfield, went head-to-head in a television show called, “Stump the Stars.” I had met Ms. Mansfield in 1959, when Joe Louis and I visited her on the set of the “George Raft Story,” as a promotion for one of the many fights we were promoting at the Moulin Rouge Nightclub on Sunset Blvd., in Hollywood. Mickey Hargitay, her husband, was hosting a weekly TV show at the time, and we (Joe and I) would be a guest on the show now and then. Jayne would often invite me to go along with her (sorta like a PR guy) on a set.
I again met Lewis around 1966 as a member of the media here in Las Vegas. I believe it was at one of the MDA telethons events held on the Las Vegas Strip. And each year I would attend the telethon or watch it at home with the family. It just depended on my work situation at the time.
Here is a funny story that’s never been told, I believe. I was working for Steve Wynn at the Golden Nugget downtown. Wynn had just taken over the casino and hired me as his publicist. Over the months Sherriff Ralph Lamb was a regular at the casino (as were a ton of lawyers, politicians, etc) for lunch (we had some of the best food downtown). And, of course Ralph and I were already friends, as his brother Darwin Lamb and I had been racing off-road since 1968, so I knew the whole family.
I had been given an honorary Sheriff’s badge by the Sheriff one day during his lunch break at the casino. A fellow news anchor (he also had a badge) and I were out at a party the weekend of the 1973 telethon. Now perhaps we had one-too-many and decided that we should go to the Sahara Hotel and Casino, and go backstage during the MDA telethon. We knew there was a back entrance up a ramp, so here we go screeching into the back-parking lot, where we parked our car (we noticed there was an unusual number of police cars) as we walked up the ramp. A guard at the door stopped us, so we both pulled out our badges, and he let us right in. When we got backstage, Jerry was resting and greeted us as usual. However, there was an unusual number of uniformed police and some detectives standing around. I spotted one detective I knew personally, and asked him why all the police. He said there was a “Bomb Threat,” and they were searching the building. Well, long story short, we didn’t hang around too much longer. We could’ve been in deep trouble had that guard looked a little closer at the badge.
But, over the years I would run into him at a corner 7-11 store he loved to go to, where he would sit down at a quarter slot machine and play poker. He would sometimes even stake me to a roll of quarters, if I ran out of quarters on my machine. He was a fun guy on a one-to-one situation. But, he could be very cantankerous at times too. I was lucky, he never once screamed at me or was rude. I have heard stories of how he could scream at strangers, or be rude to an old friend for no particular reason. I considered him a genius at comedy, science, and innovation. He worked for many years with another wonderful man I have had the privilege to know since 1968, Michael Gaughan, who owns the South Point Hotel & Casino, where Jerry last performed. Gaughan was also one of the first competitors in the Mint 400 and other off-road races in Mexico, and we raced against each other over those great years. I even tried once to convince Mr. Lewis to race in the Mint 400, but he always declined.
His loss to the world, and especially comedy, will be one spoken about for years to come. I have asked a few of my friends, who also knew him and even had dealing with him, to provide me with a short paragraph or two about the great funny man.
A few years ago, Jerry Lewis was asked about stand-up comedians and he replied: “There are about 6,000 stand-up comedians …5,000 of them should sit down.” That was from Jeff Wayne, a stand-up comedian who performs at the Laugh Factory inside the Tropicana Resort, and was a friend of the family.
Gary Anderson, a Grammy Award-Winning musician, had this memory to share with you:
I had the honor & pleasure to work for Jerry Lewis and the MDA Telethon for five years, both as a musician and arranger. As the arranger for the telethon it was my job to translate the music the performers brought with them to the 36-piece orchestra we had on stage. I also helped in preparing the music Jerry Lewis would perform. One year I was asked to arrange a piece of music Lewis had composed for the film, “The Bellboy.” The only recording available was within the film itself. I therefore had to watch the film and transcribe and then re-orchestrate for the telethon’s musicians. Tedious work – especially at midnight with a rehearsal scheduled at 10:00 a.m. In doing the work I uncovered a dissonance in the film score that I just felt was wrong, and at 3:00 a.m. who could I consult with? I went ahead and wrote what I heard, “wrong” note and all. At the rehearsal Jerry stopped the orchestra right at “that” point in the arrangement and turned to me saying “there is a wrong note in there” (the man had an incredible ear for music). Fearing my job, I sheepishly said that that was the note in the film-score. He shrugged his shoulder and said, “I told them it was wrong 50 years ago, and it is still wrong today.” So, it took 50 years but I got to fix note 50 years in the making. True story! I have witnesses
Laurie Buckley, a wonderful comedian, also had a great little story to tell:
Wow, so true my friend…One Halloween I was given the task of handing out candy for Jerry…when I introduced myself to him, he said, “Your dad (Lord Buckley) was so funny, I stayed an extra two days at the Copa, just to see him work…” Well, that comment made me forgive him for all the backstage and television comments he laid on people over the years. I know you (me) have such a great memory of his ‘cold and icy’ ways when he would step on people…guess it came with the territory of his life’s lessons…I wished I could’ve interviewed him…bless him…France is going to be devastated…. may he entertain the world of the next dimension… I believe he was grateful for the extended time he was given on this earth…and the influences of his brilliance of film with his two camera shots, he made a lot of people very happy…especially over the years he lived in Las Vegas. He was a very giving man to many.
And to end this column, my friend Harry Basil, who is co-owner of the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana, has a little story to tell:
Jerry Lewis was my comedy hero! It was the summer of 1985 and I was performing at the Comedy Store at the Dunes Hotel & Casino. Several of the comedians and myself went to see Jerry Lewis and Mel Torme at the Desert Inn. It was the first time I had ever seen JL live, I think he was about 57, the same age I am now. He did his classic typewriter bit and the amazing cane routine, sang, danced, joked galore! It was incredible! After the show, we announced that we were the comedians from the Dunes and would love to meet him. Next thing I know we are back stage and there he is, my hero, wearing a silk robe. His wife Sam was there and Jerry’s little dog Angel. Jerry was so gracious and let us spend about 90 minutes with him. I sat on the floor in front of his chair with Angel on my lap. Jerry loved that she liked me. And I basically got to ask him every question that I ever wanted to ask him.
I asked if that bit in The King of Comedy, when he’s Jerry Langford walking in NYC and a fan stops him and asks if he’d say hello to her nephew Leonard on the pay phone his biggest fan. Jerry says, “I’m sorry I’m late for a meeting” and in the same breath she says, “You should get cancer!” Jerry told us he added that bit in the film. It really happened to him at the Desert Inn, back when he was still with Dean. I got to tell him how much he inspired me and how I basically did a “Record Act” like he did when he started out, and how a lot of other comics weren’t crazy about that style of comedy. He said funny is funny! Do what you do if it comes from your heart… Thanks Jerry for inspiring so many comics, actors, writers, and directors. RIP Make God Laugh…
That’s it for this week. Like I keep saying we are losing to many of our great entertainers. Damn it!