Jerry Lewis: Entertaining for 85 years

Jerry Lewis
Jerry Lewis

Today is the 90th birthday of entertainer Jerry Lewis.

Here are some things you may not have known about him.

Joseph Levitch was born in 1926 in Newark, New Jersey. His father was a vaudeville entertainer, who used the stage name Danny Lewis. His mother played piano for a radio station. He started performing at age five, and developed his “Record Act,” in which he lip-synced and acted out prerecorded music. He eventually picked the stage name Jerry Lewis after going by Joey Lewis. He changed to avoid confusion with comedian Joe E. Lewis and boxing champ Joe Louis. Lewis dropped out of high school in the 10th grade.

In 1945, when Lewis was 19 years old, he met Dean Martin at the Glass Hat Club in New York City. Martin, nine years older than Lewis, was a nightclub singer at the time. They worked together for the first time more than a year later when Lewis suggested Martin as a replacement for a singer who was not available. At first the duo was not well received. So, they got rid of their scripted act and turned to improvisation. The combination of music, slapstick and vaudeville jokes proved immensely popular.

After a year of working together, the pair went from earning $175 a week to taking home $30,000 a week during a headlining gig at the Copacabana nightclub in New York. Soon they began “The Martin and Lewis Show” on NBC Radio, which would last for four years. They also appeared on the first episode of what came to be called “The Ed Sullivan Show.” In 1949, they signed a movie contract with Paramount Pitctures, and by 1951, they were the highest-paid act in show business. However, the pressure and pace were taking their toll. Martin, as the straight man, was relegated to romantic roles, while Lewis provided the laughs and drew most of the praise. Eventually the duo broke up acrimoniously in 1956, 10 years to the day after their first show together.

Martin went on to a career in movies, television and singing and was part of the Rat Pack with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. According to Lewis, the two didn’t speak for 20 years.

Lewis went on to star in and direct several films, including “The Bellboy,” “Cinderfella” and “The Nutty Professor.” He also taught a film directing class at the University of Southern California for several years. Some of his students included Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

In 1966, Lewis began hosting a Labor Day-weekend telethon to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The first telethon was so successful that Lewis had to paint an extra digit on the tote board when the total money raised went over $1 million. It made even more money the next year. Until this point, the telethon was seen only in the New York television market. In 1968, the telethon expanded by four stations in upstate New York and Massachusetts. In 1970, the telethon was broadcast on 64 stations, including ones in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The show moved to Las Vegas in 1973, when it also topped $10 million for the first time.

In 1976, the telethon’s network hit a peak of 213 stations, and more than 85 million viewers, who saw Lewis reunite with Martin for the first time since 1956. Until 1983, Lewis would host the entire 21 1/2-hour broadcast. At that point, he started taking a few hours to rest during the show. Lewis hosted his last MDA Telethon in 2011. The telethon itself aired for the last time in 2014.

Our question: Jerry Lewis’ son Gary Lewis led a band called Gary Lewis and the Playboys in the 1960s. What was their only No. 1 hit in the United States?

Today is Freedom of Information Day, Black Press Day and National Artichoke Heart Day.

It’s the birthday of U.S. President James Madison, actor Erik Estrada, and guitarist Nancy Wilson of Heart.

This week in 1973, the top song in the U.S. was “Killing Me Softly With His Song” by Roberta Flack.

The No. 1 movie was “Charlotte’s Web,” while the novel “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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