The first movie I remember going to was 3 Ring Circus, which starred Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. It was playing at the Park Theater, in Worcester’s Webster Square, and my father took me and my sister Kathleen. It was 1955. I was five.
There is no doubt in my mind that I found it just HIGH-larious. Oh, that Jerry Lewis!
We didn’t go to the movies very often. This was the era of TV, even if there was a pretty limited menu, and what was shown appeared on a 8” b&w Philco screen. Most of the movies I saw as a kid were Disney. The next movie I recall seeing after 3 Ring Circus was the Disney cartoon, Cinderella. Again, my father took us – where us now included my brother Tom. My father gave each of us a dime to get something to drink from a press-button machine. Kath and Tom went before I did. Alas, by the time I put my dime in, there were no more of those conical paper cups being dispensed, so I watched my orange drink (which no doubt would have been flat and cloyingly sweet) run down the drain.
But I did see another Jerry Lewis movie: The Bellboy. At the drive-in. I hated it. Jerry played a mute. That was no fun. But it was on a double-bill with a war movie that was at least entertaining. At first I was thinking that the war movie wasThe Halls of Montezuma, but that was released in 1951, not 1960. Then it came to me that the movie we saw had the word “Hell” in its title. And may have starred Jeffrey Hunter, an actor as rigid and stiff as Jerry was spazzy (sorry, but that’s the word we would have used in 1960) and loose. Which would make it, Hell to Eternity.
Hard to believe I didn’t see The Nutty Professor (1963). But by that point I was long past going to the movies with my father.
But that was pretty much it for me as far as Jerry Lewis went. By 1963, I had pretty much outgrown him. The 1960’s. I wanted to see David and Lisa. Bunny Lake Is Missing. Georgie Girl. If I wanted a laugh, there were the Beatle movies – Help, A Hard Day’s Night. The Beatles were funny. Jerry Lewis wasn’t.
Fast forward – and I’d almost entirely wiped this one from my mind – and at some point in the late 1970’s, my husband and I (by now confirmed Jerry haters) went to the Chateau de Ville in Framingham to see Jerry do his standup routine, and, I think, sing “Rock-a-bye Your Baby (with a Dixie Melody)”. The Chateau de Ville was a dinner theater and the dinner that night was scrod that had apparently been sitting on a steam rack for about 3 days. But we weren’t there for the scrod. Towards the end of his show, Jerry took questions from the audience. He was smart enough not to call on my husband, who was going to ask something about whether he considered The Nutty Professor his most artistic work.(Hard to recall a point in my life where I had the interest and energy to attend an event featuring an entertainer I couldn’t stand. Oh, to be in your twenties and full of snark.)
Jim and I did become regular watchers of the MDA Telethon, appalled by Jerry’s bloated ego and schmaltz, mesmerized by the mostly mediocre “talent,” but in awe at his capacity to raise a ton of money for a good cause. I’m quite sure if I’d had a kid with muscular dystrophy, I’d be shedding a tear or two for his loss.
One sure fire way for Jim and I to share a laugh was to mention that Jerry Lewis was so revered in France. “Monsieur Lewis, vous êtes such a comic geeee-nyus,” one of us would say, deploying our finest phony French accent. We were completed perplexed that such a sophisticated – jaded, even – culture could fall so head over heels for Jerry Lewis.
And then, once we saw King of Comedy (1982), we became Jerry Lewis fans. When Jerry Lewis played a prick, he was a genius. This guy could act. (There is some sense that playing a prick wasn’t exactly a stretch for Lewis.) And we much enjoyed him as the schmatta trade mogul in the late-1980’s TV series, Wiseguy. As I said, this guy could act.
Gradually, we lost interest in Jerry Lewis. We might turn on the MDA Telethon for a few minutes, but mostly he was dead to us.
We’d see him on TV occasionally, being interviewed, generally coming across as a self-pitying, maudlin, self-aggrandizing, mean-spirited a-hole.
Jerry Lewis. Meh…
Given the choice of listening to Gary Lewis & The Playboys on a perpetual loop playing “This Diamond Ring” or watching a Lewis-Martin comedy, I’d take “This Diamond Ring.”
And now, Jerry Lewis is no more.
One by one, the iconic figures of the collective Baby Boomer childhood are passing away.
Hey lady, you know what this means? They’re coming for us next…