Backstage with Ron Onesti:
Hey LADY, we are gonna miss this guy
Oh man, we lost another one. Another icon, another legend … another one of those names synonymous with the classic comedies of our youth.
Joseph Levitch, aka Jerry Lewis, passed away this week, and with him went decades of memories and influences too numerous to mention.
I was so much a fan of Jerry’s that I purchased some private items from Jerry Lewis’ secretary of 30 years who retired and wanted to get rid of a few things. I have Martin and Lewis pens, Christmas cards they would send to personal friends, Friar’s Club program books and other memorabilia. I even have Jerry’s original phone book with handwritten numbers of some of his close friends. If you ever want the number of Orson Welles, Johnny Carson or Jackie Gleason, I can get it to you!
The first time I experienced Jerry was during a taping of a show that was to air on HBO. I was managing Louis Prima’s daughter, Lena Prima, at the time. In 2005, she was invited to perform on this special presentation of “The Founders,” starring Jerry, Phyllis Diller, George Carlin, Shelly Berman, Shecky Green, Norm Crosby. The show was hosted by Larry King at The Flamingo in Las Vegas. Hanging in the dressing rooms during this was truly surreal.
This experience is to be conveyed to you on another day. However, Jerry was definitely “in charge.” The respect his fellow legends had for him was evident. More about this day in a future column!
We did host an “Evening with Jerry Lewis” a few years ago, near the time when Jerry was getting over a pretty serious illness that made him gain quite a bit of weight, as I had seen him on TV. I must admit, I was a bit concerned … no, worried. But when he arrived, he looked great!
The look on his face was intense; his demeanor, somewhat regal, very reverent. He looked up at the fly bars above the stage, the ones that would support the old backdrops from the vaudeville shows of yesteryear, and seemed overly interested in the history of The Arcada. “Reminds me of the vaudeville houses,” he said.
He shook my hand, without a smile and said, “Nice to meet you.” That was it. I don’t know if I expected a “Nutty Professor”-style greeting, but it was still Jerry Lewis!
So, we had a sound check with the 27-piece orchestra I had to hire. Yes! Twenty-seven pieces. I thought the same thing you are thinking — does he even sing? Darn that Frank Sinatra! He spoiled all these old-school Vegas guys because they all joined him on stage with his huge orchestra, and they got used to it. And I had to pay for it. But it was for Jerry Lewis, so I caved into it!
As I accompanied him down to the private green room area, he started asking me questions about the theater and its history. Rarely have I been in that famous Ralph Kramden-stuttering state, but it was Jerry Lewis asking me these questions.
Then I asked him if I could ask him a question. He said, “Sure kid, what do you want to know?” For the next 90-or-so minutes, I sat in his dressing room, firing off questions like Jack Webb in “Dragnet.”
He rattled off stories of Frank Sinatra and his entourages. He talked about the days in Vegas when they would work on TV shows and movies during the day, then do stage shows all night. He gave accounts about his father, a vaudevillian performer who gave him his work ethic. He shared memories of Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.
Yet one “Rat-Packer” was conspicuous by his absence within the conversation.
Dean Martin was Jerry Lewis’ comedy team partner for 10 years. They were the world’s biggest act in those days, making staggering amounts of money even by the standards of the time. But they ended the partnership on the 10th anniversary of the first time they worked together at The 500 Club in New York, citing both guys’ desire to pursue other projects.
I knew I was risking being thrown out of this delicate yet powerful backstage experience, but I wanted to give it a shot. “Can I ask you about Dean,” I blurted. “It depends,” he said. “Get creative; I’m not interested in talking about the breakup.”
A few years ago on the MDA Telethon that Jerry was hosting, Frank Sinatra brought with him a surprise guest. It was Dean Martin. This was the first time they saw each other since they broke up more than 20 years earlier. “Did you know Dean was coming on the show?” I asked.
“There were over 700 people working on that show, and I was the only one who didn’t know,” he said.
“But didn’t you see him off to the side of the stage?” I questioned.
He continued, saying something to the effect of: “Yeah, I saw him. I didn’t give it a second thought because I saw him all the time. You know, the way people see Elvis flipping burgers. I saw him at the grocery store; I saw him in the car next to me sitting in traffic. You have to understand I loved this man. He was the smartest, most genuine and loving person I had ever met, the older brother I never had. I missed him dearly, but the time was never right for us to re-connect.”
Jerry’s co-host that day was Ed McMahon. “I found out later that Ed was harboring Dean in his dressing room,” he said.
When Dean walked on stage during the telethon, the two embraced like two old war buddies would have embraced. I saw Jerry whisper something into Dean’s ear. “Without being too personal, can I ask you what you said to him,” I reluctantly posed the question. He said: “I just told him I loved him and missed him, and Dean patted my back in agreement.”
“Did you stay in touch after that night?” I asked. “All the accounts say that we never spoke again, but the real story is that we did chat now and then. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist anyway,” Jerry said more or less. “But when Dean Paul died (Dean’s son who died in a plane crash), Dean really became reclusive. Ironically, we spoke more then. I was at the funeral, in the back where nobody could see me. It was about Dean Paul, I didn’t want it to be about me and Dean.”
I really could write a book about those 90 precious minutes!
His show was a mix of stories, video footage, a few songs (he had better, with THAT orchestra!), and a Q&A with the audience. He gave the audience its money’s worth. Before he left, he handed me the cover of the kick drum that had his famous caricature silhouette on it, autographed to me.
I spoke with Dean’s daughter, Deana, who has become a big sister to me, right after Jerry’s passing.
“I was actually born the same day Dean and Jerry performed for the first time together at Slapsy Maxie’s Nightclub,” she said. I literally have known my ‘Uncle’ Jerry my whole life, and he has always been so supportive and loving.”
After the show, Jerry asked me: “Do you know why I shared that time with you?”
“I am still in Hollywood Heaven,” I retorted. And then Jerry said something like: “When I came into this theater, it brought me back to my days as a kid when I would join my father in the vaudeville shows. I kind of felt he was with me for a moment. It was a warmth I haven’t felt for a very long time. It was kind of my thank you for saving this beautiful place.”
So every time a pipe breaks or another renovation needs to be done, I think of Jerry Lewis and remind myself that the brick and mortar is held together by memories stronger than any cement could ever be.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.