Sunday, September 02, 2012

I miss Jerry

The Labor Day weekend just isn't the same without Jerry Lewis hosting the telethon.   I unabashedly loved that show. I looked  forward to it every year…for both the right and wrong reasons.

It does benefit a very worthy cause, the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The videos of the kids are both heartbreaking and inspiring. Let’s hope someday there’s a cure.

But the JERRY LEWIS TELETHON was the absolute height of entertainment cheese, a time warp to a Las Vegas scene that everyone but Jerry realized has long since passed, and was the home of the most insincere sincerity that only show business can create. The treacle just oozeed out of your speakers. Born in the swinging 60s (which you can read about here), nurtured by Sammy Davis Jr. (combining over-concern, hipness, gross sentimentality, and jewelry), this style was perfected by Jerry Lewis who added his own special touches. No one could beg with such passion while sticking a cigarette in his ear. No one could deliver a biblical sermon, break down crying, then go into his spastic retard character for comic relief.

The Frech call him Le Roi du Crazy. They still shortchange him. Since his auteur movie days he has developed his own unique and delicious blend of condescension and humility. Every year I knew what I was going to get and was always richly rewarded.

Nowhere did superlatives fly like the JERRY LEWIS TELETHON. In only one half hour I caught “infamously wonderful”, “exceptional talent”, “most talented”, “most amazing”, “most exciting”, “unmatched”, “extraordinary”, “a true legend”, and “a treasure in every sense of the word.” On the other hand, Jerry described guest David Cassidy as “that little cocker”. He’s probably right but still!

And then there was Ed McMahon. For sixty years America wondered – just what IS this guy’s talent? Say what you will, the man made a wildly successful career for himself by playing the toady to the host.

The telethon was a throwback to a better Vegas, a classier Vegas – where all performers dressed, dyed their hair, and drank. It was elegance as only the mob could imagine it. There were dinner shows and late night lounge shows, and no gift shops right outside the showrooms. You couldn’t buy Keely Smith t-shirts, Rosemary Clooney refrigerator magnets, or Frank Sinatra lunch pails.

I miss it all, but most of all Jerry.  I'll never be able to hear "Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" again without crying.   Fortunately, when the hell will I ever hear that song again?

18 comments:

Roger Owen Green said...

"Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" was performed by Aretha in her Columbia records (pre-Atlantic) days, 1962-1966.

But here's Jerry singing it.

David Schwartz said...

Here's an idea... why don't they edit the old shows (they've got 40 years worth) and give the people a chance to see Jerry, Sammy, Frank, through the years? They could even have Jerry do the wraparounds. It would be the ultimate clip show. And I imagine it would get a huge audience and a whole lot of interest which would hopefully translate into higher donations.

Steve said...

Speaking of things that have long since passed...'retard character'? Really Ken?

Paul Duca said...

I understand there will be a 3-hour taped special for MDA this year.

jcs said...

Whenever I read Jerry Lewis's name I remember the great photographer Philippe Halsman. Halsman captured celebrities in midair for a spectacular book called "Jump". Magnum photographer Halsman was able to get a spectacular photo of Lewis and his then partner Dean Martin.

http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=2K1HZOICAZQUN&SMLS=1&RW=1502&RH=829

Wiggen said...

Ken - Do you remember SCTV and the old Sammy Maudlin show, with John Candee as the simpering sidekick 'William B' and such terrific guests as Lola Heatherton (Catherine O'Hara) and 'funnyman' Bobby Bitner (Eugene Levy)?

Killed those phony vegas type shows forever.

Tom Quigley said...

Back in the days when I was in school and working retail during the summers, I sold TVs and electronics, and when Labor Day came(which I inevitably worked), if traffic was slow, I could always set all the TVs in the department to the Jerry Lewis MDA telethon and keep myself entertained by watching whatever hack lounge act or goofball stunt Jerry was likely to pull as the day dragged on. So at least I can say "Thank you Jerry, for not letting me fall asleep and get fired from my job."

Great Big Radio Guy said...

Even better than watching it on TV was being there. When the telethon originated from the Americana Hotel in NYC, I went with some friends. They recycled the audience every hour, and every hour, Jerry would grab a bucket, a cameraman and a microphone to wade through the crowd and grab as much cash as possible. I was completely in awe at how hard this guy worked for a solid 19 hours. His Love Network was closed-circuited to the hotels in the Catskills where they just killed. Every adult Jew in the metropolitan area (including my folks) was up there for the holiday and every one of them opened up their checkbooks big time.

That said, it was the ultimate spectator sport for the macabre (yes, maudlin) side of show biz...just a jaw-dropping viewing experience. I loved it.

Dean Martinized said...

Along similar lines, Antenna Network is showing Jerry Lewis movies all day tomorrow, beginning at 2 a.m., Levine Time!

Ken Levine said...

Great comment from my Facebook page. This is from Howard Murray, Jan Murray's son. And it's the best inside look at what was really going on. Thanks, Howard.

Howard wrote: "My first experience of the MDA'Telethon was in 1958, when it was broadcast only in New York (a few years that aren't included in the 'official' story of the telethon.)My father (a friend of Jerry's for many years) took my sisters and I from our home in the New York suburbs on Labor Day to downtown New York and all of us went on stage and gave Jerry $5 of our allowance money. Many years later, I attended USC film school where Jerry taught a film course. Jerry lent me equipment to shoot my projects, and helped me in many ways. Labor Day '72 I decided to go with my dad to Vegas where they were holding the telethon that year. I had such a great time..worked the phone banks and stayed there for the entire 21 1/2 hours. Watching Jerry switch gears so many times, much like you describe was fascinating. The following year I left USC a few courses short of graduating to take a job in New York as the in-house cameraman/director/ editor for MDA. I followed Jerry all over the country to film roll ins for the Telethon and Jerry doing large events for corporate sponsors. What a fascinating and complex man. I worked only a year and a half for the MDA full time, and after that worked as a stage manager just on the Telethon for the next 4 or 5 years. I don't think I ever missed watching over the next 40 years. I was even there when Frank brought out Dean Martin for a surprise reunion with Jerry. Yes, the show was cheesy...yes, Jerry included many of his old buddies from the Catskills who seemed out of the business other than on the Telethon. Watching some of Jerry's rants in the middle of the night were surreal and oddly hilarious. (martin Short did a brilliant sketch on SCTV where he performed the the different phases of the Telethon) The one thing you couldn't miss was Jerry's complete sincerity and love for 'his kids' Some of the best times of my career were associated with Jerry and the Telethon. I find it so sad that he was not allowed do a 'final' show last year. What an ugly mess. In fighting with members of the board, many of who that started with Jerry all those years ago caused the nastiness last year that culminated in Jerry being 'Let go." What a horrible mistake. Love him or hate him, Jerry put on a show that became part of Americana, something that was always there year after year. Yes, I could cringe at some of what Jerry did and said, but he was always an original....and by the way, raised over a half billion dollars. I would love one more chance to see Jerry, Milton, Steve and Edie, Sammy all on the same stage again, all of them entertainers from a time now gone. Maybe one day, it had better be soon, fences will be mended and Jerry could come back and sing 'You'll Never Walk Alone" one more time, with tears welling in his eyes as the song built to it's finish. "

Cap'n Bob said...

When there were only five channels to choose from we'd watch a little of the telethon, when I was a kid lo these many years ago. Even then my tolerance for shmaltz was low and I stopped by the time I wsa a teen.

The SCTV sendup of talk shows was a scream, all right, but the funnyman was Bobby Bittman (or Bitman, or Bitmann, or Bittmann).

Phil In Phoenix said...

Someone over at Chabad needs to call Jerry and see if he has an hour or 2 free next week.

http://tolife.com/

A Question said...

Ken--
Any reactions to this piece by the Onion's AV Club?

http://www.avclub.com/articles/10-classic-episodes-of-mash,84329/

DebyinShermanOaks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DebyinShermanOaks said...

Ken,
Love your post about the Telethon. I grew up watching the Telethon in the 60's on and had the privilege of being at many Telethon's in the late 80's and early 90's as, first a guest of Jerry's and then, as his daughter in law. This is a huge loss for MDA and they should be ashamed about their treatment of Jerry after he has dedicated his life to this organization.
I have never met a more amazing person in my life and I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Jerry.

Anonymous said...

The man may be difficult, egocentric, and a horror to work with, but it was shameful that it took until 2009 for him to get the honorary Oscar.

The only movie of his I enjoyed was The Nutty Professor, but I watched the telethon every year. I saw Dean come out and the tears in their eyes. I heard the cringe inducing comments and interviews with the kids. And I cried every year when he sang "You'll Never Walk Alone".

It is difficult to find anyone to tell him "No", I'm sure. At his age, with his health issues, he should have retired or found someone to take over the telethon for him when Ed died. Jerry may not have given them many options, but how they have handled this is just shameful. They could have worked something out.

Pam aka SisterZip

D. McEwan said...

Damn! I've been meaning for half a century to catch Jerry's telethon sometime, just always some OTHER year! Now I've left it too late, and will never see Jerry in a telethon. Oh well. I'll bear up, I'm certrain.

Lorimartian said...

I watched off and on over the years, but my mom watched every year. She especially loved Jack Jones. But seriously, what is taking so long to find a cure for MD, cancer, diabetes, and other serious illnesses? These causes have been around at least 50 years. Some say the treatments are so profitable, the medical community (drug companies) isn't in any hurry to find a cure. If that's true, how shameful. If not, with all the money presumably thrown at it (if the money raised is indeed going to the research), what is taking so long?