By Lonnie Knabel ~
Many of us remember Jerry Lewis’s many films, but it is important to remember that he was part of one of the greatest comedy teams ever to grace a stage, Martin and Lewis.
In 1945, Jerry Lewis was performing his nightclub comedy routine that mostly involved lip-synching to records. He first met crooner Dean Martin on the same circuit at The Glass Hat Club in New York City. Later, in Atlantic City’s 500 Club, the singer scheduled to appear with Jerry cancelled, so Jerry recommended Dean Martin as a replacement. They appeared as an act but were not well received, so they decided to improvise with Jerry appearing as a silly clumsy waiter while Dean sang. The public loved it, and soon they were appearing all along the East Coast, finally playing a triumphant run at the famous Copacabana Club in New York City. Steve Lawrence, another popular singer at the time said, “They broke every record in the house.” They hired two writers, one being Norman Lear of All in the Family fame.
The Martin and Lewis team hosted an NBC radio series from 1949 to 1953 before breaking into television. From 1950 to 1955, they would host the The Colgate Comedy Hour, and they were always a smash. In 1951 they were the highest paid act in show business. Movies remained their next frontier, and they made 16 films together. By today’s standards the films would be considered forgettable, but every one was a moneymaker for Paramount.
Martin discovered that he was always second fiddle to Lewis, and many felt any crooner could have worked as the straight man. But Jerry Lewis never felt this way, calling Dean Martin “the greatest straight man in the history of show business.” One of the last straws came when LOOK magazine photographed them for a cover, and Martin was cropped out of the picture. In 1956, ten years to the day from their first nightclub appearance together, Martin walked off the set of their last film together. Not wanting to play a cop, Lewis replied, “Then we’ll just have to get somebody else.” To which Martin recanted, “Start looking, boy.” And then the two didn’t speak for twenty years. Perhaps as a precursor to the split, they had changed the name of their act to “Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis,” which would greatly aid them as they sought solo careers.
In 1976 their mutual friend Frank Sinatra staged an awkward reunion of the two at one of Jerry Lewis’s Annual Muscular Dystrophy telethons when he announced to Jerry Lewis that he had a friend backstage. But it would take ten more years before the two had a complete reconciliation. They remained friends until Martin’s death in 1995. They are considered by many to be one of the best and most successful comedy duos in the history of show business.
About the author – Lonnie Knabel is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes. In addition to being a classic movie aficionado, Lonnie is a regular contributing author to Living @ SCCL magazine and a professional graphic artist. Please visit his website here.