Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis
Before the Beatles, before Elvisin the age of Truman, Eisenhower and Sen. Joe McCarthythe Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis act created a sensation. In a time when America needed to let loose, the handsome crooner from Steubenville, Ohio, and the skinny funnyman from New Jersey freed us to laugh ourselves silly. And we loved them for it. Onstage, they played off each other perfectly. Offstage, they seemed the best of friends. They shocked nearly everyone when they broke up.
Postwar America was a very buttoned-up nation. Radio shows were run by censors, Presidents wore hats, ladies wore girdles. We came straight out of the blue. Nobody was expecting anything like Martin & Lewis. Like George Burns & Gracie Allen and Abbott & Costello, we were vaudevilliansstage performers who worked with an audience. But the difference was, they worked with a script. We exploded without one, the same way jazz musicians do. And the minute we started out in nightclubs, audiences went nuts for us.
By 1951, five years after we began, fans still could not get enough. We played the Paramount Theater on Broadway for the first time that summer. (The same Paramount where fans had fainted for Frank Sinatra in the ’40s.) Arriving for our first show, our cab was stopped by a huge mob of fans filling Times Square, waiting to get into the theater. Most of them, we later learned, had been there since 6 a.m.
Between shows we were literally prisoners, because six stories down was a crowd of at least 20,000 people waiting to catch a glimpse of us. Since we were stuck there, we threw open the window, sat on the ledge and basked in the excitement. We yelled jokes, sang, threw stuff down to the crowd.
The crowd filled the street and spilled around the corner onto Broadway. The mayor himself, the honorable Vincent Impellitteri, came to personally welcome us to New Yorkand to personally plead with us to cut out the dressing-room shows. His cops couldn’t handle the traffic! Other comedy teams never generated anything like the hysteria that Dean and I did, and that was because we had that X factorthe powerful feeling between us. And it really was an X factor, a kind of mystery.
Dean Martin in real life was much the way everyone perceived him: cool, relaxed, unfazed by most anything. The guy who could take a nap during a gang war. Born Dino Crocetti, he had grown up in a gritty mill town, dropped out of school to work in a foundry, run liquor for a bootlegger, boxed, dealt blackjack and poker. And he sang. “I just had it in me,” he would say.
Dean was a man’s man, a big jungle cat, totally easy in his skinor at least good at convincing others that he was. Really, he could never totally let down his guard. He maintained a distance from everybodyexcept me. Dean and I understood each other. He was the suave one, the cool one, the one in charge. I was the whacked-out, terminally insecure (but dangerously uninhibited) 9-year-old. He was yin to my yang. Bedrock to my wildfire. His own natural comic instincts dovetailed perfectly with mine, and together we made the sum of one and one into 2 million.
Our closeness worked for usbonding us in a way that audiences lovedbut, over time, it also worked against us. After many years together, our ideas about who and what Martin & Lewis was began to fray. Until then, it had been enough for me to bounce around like a crazy person while Dean smiled indulgently. Dean felt that was still enough. I didn’t. I was approaching 30. I wanted to grow as a comedian, as an actor.
Things cooled between us. One day, Dean sat down with the columnist Earl Wilson: “I want a little TV show of my own,” he told Wilson, “where I can sing more than two songs in an hour. I’m about 10 years older than the boy [me]. He wants to direct. He loves work. So maybe he can direct, and I can sing.”
When reporters in New York asked me if we were feuding, I must have looked like a man on his way to the gallows. “No comment,” was all I came up with. I couldn’t shake the childish hope that, just like a fairy tale, everything would be all better. But I knew that Martin & Lewis’ days were numbered. Meanwhile, we continued to perform together, but we weren’t really speaking.
Tuesday, July 24, 1956, was a mostly ordinary day in New York City. For Dean and me, however, it was anything but. Because that evening, at the Copacabana Club in Manhattan, we would be doing our act for the final time. For a decade, Martin & Lewis had been the most successful show-business act in history. We’d been loved, idolized, sought after. And now we were shutting the party down.
Inside, the nightclub was packed. Outside, thousands of fans lingered near the red awning of the club on East 60th Street. Flashbulbs popped as star after star went in to see our final act. Waiting for our first set, Dean and I had very little to say to each other. As I got ready for the show, I thought my heart would break. I was losing my best friend.
We did three sets that night, and we were both shattered by the time we got to the last number. It was the song “Pardners,” which included the lines “You and me, we’ll always be pardners. You and me, we’ll always be friends.” Then we closed the book on 10 great yearswith the exception of the last 10 months. Those were horrific10 months of pain and anger, uncertainty and sorrow.
When I got back to my hotel room, I called my partner for the last time. “We sure had some good times, didn’t we?” “We sure did, kid,” he said. “I don’t know where either of us is going from here,” I told him, “but I’ll be carrying you in my heart wherever I go, because I love you.” Then Dean said, “I know. I love you too, Jer.” We would not appear onstage together for 20 years.
It was 1976. I was in Vegas doing the Muscular Dystrophy Telethonthe greatest cause on the planet (of course, I’m prejudiced). I introduced Frank Sinatra, who stopped the show coldas he always did. Then Frank said, “I have a friend who watches what you do here every year and thinks it’s terrific. I’d like to have him come out.” And out walked Dean Martin. I was in a time warp. My hands got sweaty, my mouth turned dry. We hugged hard. He kissed me on the cheek, and I did the same to him. The audience in the theater was going wild. For the first time in 20 years, we stood side by side. “I think it’s about time, don’t you?” Frank said. The two of us nodded “yes” in tandem. I wish I could say Dean and I reconnected then and there, but it took a little while. Tragically, it took the 1987 death of Dean’s son Dinowho crashed while flying an F4-C Phantom for the Air National Guardto bring us close again.
I was playing the Bally in Vegas when I heard about the crash. I immediately flew to L.A. for the funeral. I sat in the back of the church. Dean didn’t know I was present, and I didn’t want him to. Early that evening, a mutual friend called to say that he’d seen me at the funeral and told Dean, who was touched that I had been there. What wasn’t said, but I understood, was how moved Dean had been that I’d come and gone in anonymity. Going unnoticed has never been my strong suit. But I felt it was a gesture I owed to both my partner and Dino.
Late that night, after my second show at Bally’sit was about 3 a.m.the phone in my dressing room rang. The voice on the line was instantly recognizable: “Hey, Jer.” Two years later, I surprised Dean on his 72nd birthday with an enormous cake I wheeled onstage during one of his sets in Vegas. As we hugged, he saidloud enough for the audience to hear“I love you, and I mean it.”
And this is what I said, also loud enough for everyone to hear: “Here’s to 72 years of joy you’ve given the world. Why we broke up, I’ll never know.” In 1995, Dean passed away. Frank Sinatra came up to me outside the memorial service, grabbed my hand and said, “Well, we lost the big gun, my friend.” “We didn’t lose him,” I said. “God just placed him elsewhere.” I miss him every day, but I’ll live the rest of my life with the memory of a great and wonderful man: my partner, Dean Martin.
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