Earlier this week, when I learned that Jerry Lewis had died, my first thoughts were not of telethons, Martin and Lewis, or The Nutty Professor. Instead, I thought of a January night a little over two years ago, Eddie Cantor, and “show business.”
On January 9, 2015, I celebrated my birthday at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C. watching a production of Lewis’s one-man show, An Evening with Jerry Lewis. I wasn’t always a Jerry Lewis fan, and there were times in my life when I would have opted for other birthday entertainment. But I had grown to appreciate Lewis over the years for his grit in continuing to perform, discuss, and defend his work on and off the stage.
At the time Lewis visited Washington, D.C., I was immersed in writing The Eddie Cantor Story: A Jewish Life in Performance and Politics. Martin and Lewis and Eddie Cantor each hosted The Colgate Comedy Hour, an influential early TV program that rotated hosting duties among several comedians. Lewis was the only surviving headliner from The Colgate Comedy Hour and one of the few living links to Cantor.
I have nice memories of my 2015 evening with Lewis. He was 88-years-old at the time of this performance and still touring the country. The Lincoln Theatre was packed with people of all ages. Grandparents brought their children and grandchildren. Couples, like me and my wife, enjoyed “date nights.” The star gave his audience a solid evening of nostalgic entertainment: telling old jokes, sharing anecdotes, and playing video clips from his career. He even included a few Martin and Lewis bits from The Colgate Comedy Hour. Mostly, I liked being in the presence of this show business icon.
Lewis’s death marks the end of an era. He was the last star from the heyday of live television comedy and variety shows. As I watched Lewis that night in Washington, I was reminded of Cantor and countless other performers who enjoyed stardom during the 1940s and early 1950s. They were professionals who took tremendous pride in their celebrity status and their abilities to pack theaters. As they reprised popular songs and comedy routines, these entertainers demonstrated their love of show business and respect for their audiences. There was nothing wrong with a little nostalgia and kitsch. As long as theatergoers would buy tickets, and viewers would tune in, Lewis and his fellow entertainers would take the stage and give the people their money’s worth. Jerry Lewis was a trouper.