Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A morning conference with JERRY LEWIS


By Steve Crum
On Nov. 8, 1995 at 10 a.m., if memory serves, I was among 20 reporters awaiting the entrance of Jerry Lewis in the large dining room of the then Alameda Plaza Hotel, located on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo. Folding chairs were set up, and TV cameras topped tripods, all facing the podium where Lewis would soon stand. My front row seat would provide close proximity to one of my show business idols.
Lewis was in town as part of the five year, cross country tour of his hit Broadway revival, the musical Damn Yankees. Lewis portrayed the glitzy dressed devil, the part Ray Walston had introduced four decades before. This press conference was undoubtedly an event repeated in city after Damn Yankees city. It was a hammy event, to be sure. Lewis entered from the back of the room, which gave sustained time for awaiting reporters to stand and wildly applaud. Lewis walked very much like Benny or Hope, his arms swinging in cadence, his walk an ego strut. He wore a dark sweater with large, yellow and red diamond shapes on front, both long sleeves pulled up to mid-arm. Chic casual. He looked very healthy then at 69. Fifteen years later, the contrast is stark.
Behind the rostrum, Lewis acknowledged our applause, shouting into the mike, “I’ll just stand here for a few minutes. I know you want to look at me.” And we did. The applause continued for another 30 seconds. Finally, he began the session with cordial remarks about his happiness at being in KC, particularly in a Broadway musical venue. The Q & A went on for about 45 minutes.
Lewis joked that playing the devil was perfect for him since he “has had years of experience with it.” He reminisced, speculated and philosophized about show business and his life. “I wake up every day and I’m a smash hit,” he said. He spoke of what fuels him, of his incentive and drive. Of his excitement to perform, even after 64 years, he said, “There is a misconception of boredom I feel fulfilled in a rush, and I don’t have turbulent innards.” As to why he was taking five years to tour, he answered, “I don’t believe in doing things half way.” His own favorite films are The Nutty Professor and The King of Comedy. His mentors are Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin.
Define laughter. “It’s a safety valve that shuts off everyting else for a moment.” What about your heir-apparent, Jim Carrey? ”If we’re not careful, we’re gonna lose him due to studio control and burnout.” Where do you get inspiration? “The information you take from people like Al Jolson is infinite.” When will you stop doing the MDA telethon? “When they lay me in the box. I started something and I plan to finish it.”
Lewis was surprisingly polite, reserved, and focused. When one reporter made a semi-intellectual observation about the persona of the Buddy Love character in Lewis’ classic comedy, The Nutty Professor, Lewis complimented him for asking “the best, most incisive question I have heard today.” I felt compelled to one-up the guy, and dazzle Jerry Lewis with an even better question, one that no one else had even come close to asking.
“Jerry, what is the possibility of your movie, The Day the Clown Cried, finally being released?” I know I heard a gasp from at least five reporters seated around me. THIS was a question that had not been asked because no one was supposed to ask it! I had not been clued in. The Day the Clown Cried had supposedly been completed overseas, possibly shot in Poland, some time back. No one asked about it because Jerry did not want to discuss it. Ever. I have learned since that it will never be shown. Supposedly, the only copy of it rests in Jerry’s vault, and only a handful of cherished pals have ever seen even a snippet of it. The film has become urban legend.
Here is why. In it, Jerry portrays a Jewish inmate in a Nazi concentration camp who is also a professional clown. His job is to dress as a clown and lead Jewish children to the gas chambers, giving them their literal last laugh. Supposedly, Lewis took the role to showcase both his dramatic and comedic skills. This would be the ultimate challenge for an artist, outdoing even Chaplin. Then the production ran short of money to finish the film. There were legal conflicts regarding who owned the property. Orson Welles had nothing compared to this fiasco.
It was an unmentionable around Lewis. So I unwittingly dropped it on him like a pregnant cassowary. He did not explode, he did not falter. He answered that the film will never be publicly shown, and that he has not even seen it. Lewis said the print was still in Sweden, and that he was legally fighting to own it. “It is like losing a child,” he said. That was that.
Incidentally, two things happened during and after the press conference that made me take Jerry’s reputation of being irrascible and prone to verbal explosions with a grain of Morton. First, there was the incident right in the middle of the press conference, when two numbskulls from a local radio station crashed the proceedings by rudely walking up to Lewis as he was answering someone’s question. They were holding a portable tape recorder, and kept pushing it into Jerry’s face, almost pressing his lips, demandingly asking, “Jerry, we want you to be our guest on Q-104 today. Will you answer questions about the telethon and your movies?” 

They kept shouting at him, yet Lewis remained calm as his people standing on the sidelines rushed to stop this madness. Lewis kept saying, “Just see my staff, and they will arrange an interview, fellas. There’s no need to interrupt here. Please leave.” Suddenly, the two lame brains stopped pressing Lewis, and left. Within an hour, I later heard, a doctored audio clip of Jerry Lewis was heard, and then repeated, on that radio station via their shock jock. They had edited what Jerry had said, down to, “No interview...Leave,” “No interview...Leave,” “No interview...Leave.” The words, out of context, were looped and played throughout the day to show what a rude dude Lewis is. Jerry Lewis has always beaten his own image to the ground enough without having some radio jerks falsify it. This time Jerry was on extremely good behavior, and did not deserve the negatives.
The second thing that endeared me to Jerry occurred after the press conference. He stayed around for autographs. About half the press stuck around to get his signature. I brought the two Decca record albums I had owned since I was in high school. He looked at the second, more rare, of the two, and asked, “WHERE did you find this one?” As he signed it, I had to open my idiot mouth and say, “I’m getting a Jerry Lewis autograph.” I said this in mock Lewis voice, a terrible impression, but close enough for him to realize I was doing his “kid” voice. What did he then do? He stopped signing, glanced up at me, and said, “Ahem,” unsmilingly. Then he finished his signature.
To me, suffering from temporary insanity, it was a mini standing ovation. I am lucky he didn’t take me to the back of the hotel and beat me over the head with my record albums for bringing up the clown movie.
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In 2013, Jerry Lewis was once again asked the dreaded question concerning The Day The Clown Cried: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xD-BYt8KiwA

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