In what was to be his final show, Jerry Lewis strayed from the script to speak from the heart.
Feeling tugs of nostalgia, he paid tribute to a great friend and a great talent, the individual many of Lewis’ contemporaries thought was the greatest entertainer ever: Sammy Davis Jr.
Lewis veered into a story about visiting Davis at his friend’s home in Las Vegas’s historic Rancho Circle Estates. Davis was suffering from throat cancer and very near death when Lewis visited him one afternoon in May 1990. Just two years earlier, the duo had co-headlined at Bally’s, a rowdy back-and-forth show that turned out to be Davis’ final performance on the Strip.
Lewis, who died Aug. 20 at age 91 and was honored at a celebration of life Monday at South Point Showroom, often spoke lovingly of his time with Davis. He frequently referred to Davis’ seemingly boundless skills as a performer, saying, “He was a magnificent specimen, an incredible friend and someone you’re not going to see for the rest of our lives, ever again. His talent, his love, his affection will stay with me for as long as I am here.”
Midway through his show at South Point Showroom on Oct. 2, 2016, Lewis unexpectedly launched into a story about his old friend.
“I went to visit him at home, in bed, and I said, ‘Sam? What are you doing?’” Lewis said. “He said, ‘I’m in bed, ya schmuck.’”
“I know that!” Lewis said. “But I have to understand what’s happening. He said, ‘What’s happening is they tell me if they operate and take the vocal chords out, I can live a full life.’”
“I said, ‘Well, naturally, you’re going to do what they tell you,’” Lewis said. “And he said, ‘Jerry, if I can’t sing, I can’t live.’”
There was silence.
“I said, ‘OK, OK, I know where you’re coming from,’” Lewis said. “I said to the doctor, ‘You have to give him freedom now. Whatever you’re planning medically, surgically or otherwise, you have to give him room.
“Let him spread his wings. Let him sing, if he has to sing. And he’ll make everything sound perfect.’”
Lewis continued, “I left him, and he said, ‘You can’t leave without kissing me, you old Jew.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t leave without kissing you.’ I leaned over and I kissed him, and that was the last time I saw Sammy.”
Davis died just days later, May 16, 1990. As Lewis spoke, the air seemed to leave the showroom. He knew the power of his words.
“Very honestly, I was afraid to get into this,” Lewis said. “I’d never done it before. But then I realized I had something I had to say. I had something I had to prove to myself, that I’d lost my best friend, and to share it with an audience that loved him. That made me comfortable. It gave me strength. If I am talking about my friend, the audience will know where it’s coming from — from here. I wanted him acknowledged, one more time.”
It was as if Lewis knew it would be his last chance to show that love from a Las Vegas stage. Whether or not that was the case, the master of the stage delivered a performance for all time.
Before Monday’s memorial, the Lewis family sprayed the entire showroom with Dunhill cologne. Those who knew Lewis immediately recognized the scent as Lewis’s favorite.
A tale from Copperfield
A longtime friend of Lewis’, MGM Grand headliner David Copperfield, said he first knew Lewis during Copperfield’s headlining run at Jerry Lewis Theater at the Brown’s Hotel in the Catskills. Copperfield was just 18 at the time.
“Everything I learned about lighting and staging started with him,” said Copperfield, who fills his eponymous theater at MGM Grand 15 times per week. “He was an extraordinary man.”
Those around the room
On a day calling for laughs, such famous comic figures as Marty Allen, with his wife, Karon Kate Blackwell; Pete Barbutti; Rio headliners Penn and Teller; Pat Cooper; Luxor headliner Carrot Top, top stand-up Jeffrey Ross; and Laugh Factory at Tropicana manager and veteran stand-up Harry Basil were spotted in the showroom.