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Jerry Lewis was magic on and off the stage

Updated August 20, 2017 - 10:38 pm

A couple of years ago, I had dinner with Jerry Lewis at one of his favorite Las Vegas haunts, Piero’s Italian Restaurant. Lewis was very close with the owner of Piero’s, Freddie Glusman, who says there are two Jerrys responsible for the restaurant’s long success: Jerry Lewis and Jerry Tarkanian.

When I sat down, the King of Comedy was holding a wine cork from the bottle opened and waiting for his arrival. We said hello, and Lewis bounced the cork off a salad plate. He did this a couple of times, then held the cork up, with dramatic aplomb.

Then, Lewis let the cork drop again. It bounced, then landed perfectly on its end.

We stared momentarily at this unlikely moment, then he said, “I could try that a thousand times, and never make it happen again.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said. “You’re magic!”

It was one of many magic moments with Jerry Lewis, who died Sunday morning at age 91. He had been weakened by treatment for a urinary tract infection, recovering in a Las Vegas rehabilitation facility for two months before being released on Aug. 7.

The first conversation I had with Lewis was about 13 years ago, and it ended abruptly. I had “cold called” him at home to verify that the MDA Labor Day Telethon was moving back to Las Vegas, to his friend Michael Gaughan’s South Point. “I am not trying to develop a relationship with you,” Lewis said. Click.

Years later — this year, in fact — I teasingly reminded Lewis of that conversation.

“I didn’t even know who you were!” he responded, poking his finger toward me in mock angst. “Am I supposed to ask a total stranger calling me at home if he wants to go out for coffee?”

It took many years, and many working hours, to genuinely understand and appreciate Jerry Lewis. I covered his final two years of the MDA Labor Day Telethon in 2009 and 2010, though we hadn’t realized then they would be his final two years. I was there when he broke down, sobbing, during a 2009 rehearsal of “Dormi, Dormi, Dormi,” the aching lullaby that reminded him of MDA’s cause and “Jerry’s Kids.”

His emotions ran free again in 2010. After closing with, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Lewis again cried. His face was streaked with tears as he was assisted offstage. He took oxygen before taking several minutes to even speak.

“I couldn’t handle it,” he said later. “I was falling apart in that last number. When I bent over, I was able to say, ‘Dear God, let me finish this song.’ I had the awareness, on the air, to do that.”

A few weeks after that moment, I was the one who was cold-called. “Would you come to San Diego to visit me on my yacht?”

“To what do I owe this honor?” I asked.

“For all the work you did for my kids,” Lewis said.

That was the turning point. He was so appreciative of the attention given to the telethon, and he never forgot all that time and work at the South Point.

When I showed up at San Diego marina to “Sam’s Place,” the craft named for Lewis’s wife, Sam, Jerry was far more relaxed than I’d seen him. “Let’s talk!” he said/ “I’ll take you anywhere you want to go — except there.”

Lewis pointed to the sleeping quarters.

In that conversation, and in countless others, Lewis reiterated his love for “my partner,” Dean Martin. He clearly loved Martin, talking of recurring dreams of the two performing together on the Strip (one dream had the duo opening at the Sands).

Lewis once told me he felt Martin’s spirit in the Lewis household. “I still feel Dean at times. … When I start to write, in my office at home, I play classical music at a very low level, just so I hear it. Over in the corner is a chair, and I swear to God, when I was writing, ‘Dean and Me,’ I felt his presence.”

We talked frequently of his partnership with Martin, and such entertainment stars as Al Jolson, Charlie Chaplin and Louis Prima. But we had terse moments, too. I once asked Lewis about reports that a copy of the film “The Day the Clown Cried” had been sent to the Library of Congress and might be viewed publicly one day. In the never released 1972 film. Lewis portrayed a German circus clown sent to a Nazi death camp who led Jewish children to the gas chambers.

“I need to ask you about ‘The Day the Clown Cried,’ ” I started.

“What? Why” Lewis responded, his eyes narrowing.

“Because we’ve never talked about it,” I said.

“Well, we’re not gonna talk about it again!” he said. I finally explained the reports that the film might be made public. He settled down, and said, “That film will never be seen by any human, ever. It’s upstairs (in his house). Nobody can touch it. I’ve got it in a safe and there’s nothing to talk about.”

“Fair enough!” I said. I then turned the conversation to the next show we’d see, which would be “Mystere” at Treasure Island, where Lewis would meet 85-year-old circus clown Brian Dewhurst, who had seen Martin and Lewis perform at the London Paladium in London in 1953.

Lewis enjoyed the show immensely, telling Dewhurst, “I loved watching you work.”

If there was a benefit to him through our time together, it was visiting some of the great productions and artists in Las Vegas. He relished “Absinthe” at Caesars Palace, taking a shine to Melody Sweets and tappers Sean and John Scott. We had great nights with Jennifer Lopez at Axis theater, and Celine Dion at Caesars Palace. Lewis and Celine recalled Celine’s appearances on the MDA Telethon as a kid.

“You did not introduce me as ‘Celine,’” she said to Lewis before the show. “It was, ‘Dion!’ Nobody introduces me with my last name. Only you. I’ll never forget it.”

Later that night, during Celine’s performance, I caught Jerry blowing kisses to his wife, Sam. He loved her so much, and his daughter, Danielle, too. During dinner before “Mystere,” he put his hand over mine and talked of her.

“When she laughs, even in an audience full of people, I hear it,” he said. “It makes me proud to be a comedian.”

I remember these moments, and his rendition of “Smile,” and I do the same. He famously referred to his age — 90 at the time — as “a monster number,” saying, “It means it’s almost over. It means I won’t see my friends, my family, much longer. But I’ve seen enough, I really have. I don’t know how else to look at it.”

In his passing, I toast Jerry Lewis, the man who brought so much magic to my life.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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