I first met Jerry Lewis in 1957 at the Radio City Theater in Downtown Minneapolis. The Radio City Theater was the “Grand Dame” movie palace that was redesigned by Liebenberg and Kaplan — the same architects who redesigned my grandfather’s three Minneapolis movie theaters.
The movie showing was “THE DELICATE DELINQUENT”, Jerry’s first film without his beloved partner Dean Martin. I stood in line to receive an autographed photo from Jerry. That same year in that same theater, I stood in line again to receive an autographed photo of Jayne Mansfield, who was promoting her new film, “WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROSS HUNTER”.
The next year, the 4,000 seat theater was demolished to build a parking ramp.
Fifty-four years later, I came up with the idea to email Jerry Lewis to see if he just might allow us to honor him at the upcoming NBA Hall of Fame Gala. That same day my assistant Earlene said, “Bob, you better pick-up the phone, it’s Jerry Lewis. He wants to speak to you!” He could not have been nicer. He could not have been more humble. He said that he had never been honored by broadcasters before in his “home town” of Las Vegas. He gladly accepted. We had an exchange of phone calls over the summer and ongoing communication with his staff. At one time he had invited me to come to his house for bagels and lox but that meeting never happened.
I did not actually see Jerry until a few days before the Gala. I met him at his office. Looking at the walls lined with photos and posters, I could not help but see that the majority of the photos were of Jerry together with Dean Martin.
I was waiting just outside Jerry’s office with his assistant. Jerry was having a nasty, heated telephone conversation. I heard his temper. Jerry was screaming, “Is this how you speak to a person who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?” Eventually the call was ended and I heard my name being called.
I was not alone with Jerry for our fifteen minute meeting. He had a few men in the office who apparently were part of the previous telephone conversation. I was struck by the size of the framed photograph of his young daughter. It was huge. And he spoke lovingly of her. We eventually got down to business and outlined the procedure of his arrival at Red Rock and how he would be brought up to the ballroom in a wheel chair. He was very clear that he would only speak for a minute or two, due to his use of oxygen.
When he was first invited to be the recipient of our Lifetime Achievement Award, his situation with the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon had not yet been made public. His first public appearance would be at the Gala and he surprised me by demanding that a short paragraph be eliminated from the already printed tribute journals. That was a deal breaker for him. Somehow, I would make his request happen. As it turned out, while the 500 books had already been printed, they had not yet been assembled. The change was made.
Jerry arrived at Red Rock on time. We had offered to provide a limo to bring him but he graciously said that he would be driven there. He entered the sold-out ballroom in darkness, sitting in his wheelchair. When the lights came up and I introduced him, he could see 20 cameras and journalists sitting on the floor in front of the podium. Even INSIDE EDITION and Jim Moret drove in from Hollywood to cover the event.
He actually climbed the stairs. He became energized by the cheers and the standing ovation. Jerry put on his red clown nose; asked for and then spit out some water that he had been given to drink; and then did about ten minutes of comedy “shtick”. He was wonderful.
Jerry Lewis received his Lifetime Achievement plaque and his Hall of Fame trophy — presented by the Governor, the Congresswoman, the Mayor, etc. When he returned to his wheel chair, the room went dark, and he was gone.
A year later I saw Jerry perform his amazing show at the Orleans. The show included a Q and A with the audience. I spoke with him for the last time at the screening of his last film, MAX ROSE — earlier this year. He died earlier this week.
SMILE THOUGH YOUR HEART IS ACHING …..
SMILE WHEN YOUR HEART IS BREAKING …..