Labor Day and Jerry Lewis. For most of my life, that weekend and that person were practically one-in-the-same.
I remember watching the annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon in my family living room. Jerry Lewis was very funny, but would frequently turn serious as he reminded everyone why it was important to call in a pledge.
His appearances on television outside of Labor Day weekend were confined mainly to talk shows, where the likes of Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and Johnny Carson would have him on frequently promoting a movie or an upcoming appearance in Las Vegas.
There’s a show business legend that recalls one night in the early 1970s when all three late night talk shows (Carson, Griffin, and Dick Cavett) taped their shows in New York City.
Jerry appeared on all three shows on the same night. He made an appearance as a regular guest on one and then did quick cameos on the other two.
The movies had their moments.
The films with Dean Martin were funny. None of Jerry’s performances as a solo movie actor stood out for me. I enjoyed the Disorderly Orderly where he runs amuck in a hospital setting.
As a teen watching the annual telethon growing up in the 1970s, I hoped that one day I would have a chance to be part of that tradition.
I got my chance as one of the hosts from the Binghamton, New York affiliate of the Telethon’s “Love Network”. For two years, I donned the tuxedo and supported the primary host Mark Williams as we broadcast local segments from the Oakdale Mall in Johnson City.
I hosted some of the early morning segments while Mark got some rest. It was fun doing that form of live television. I left the station after two years, and even though my career would take me onward to four other television stations, none of them carried the Labor Day Telethon.
It was a dream-come-true for me to be part of that incredible display of emotion and endurance on Labor Day.
Nearly two decades later, Jerry Lewis was appearing in Rochester, New York with the Broadway show Damn Yankees.
A coworker told me Jerry would be accepting an award from the County of Monroe at a ceremony taking place at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Rochester. I called a friend at one of the television stations where I had worked and asked if I could accompany him to the ceremony.
Jerry accepted the award, and then took questions from the local media. He mentioned how he was writing a book on his recollections from the Martin and Lewis partnership.
I asked him whether it was difficult to go back and recall that period of time. He looked at me, smiled and said something to the effect:
“Not really, it was a very special time in my life, in both our lives. I didn’t want to lose those memories with time.”
The book became Dean and Me, and was co-written by James Kaplan.
Mr. Kaplan was interviewed shortly after the news broke that Jerry had passed away at his home in Las Vegas. The interviewer, pressed for time, wrapped up a five-minute live interview by asking him to describe Jerry in one word.
Without giving it an extra second to think, Mr. Kaplan answered “genius”.
Jerry’s son Chris spoke at a meeting of Fresno Rotary I attended several years ago.
Chris was raising money on behalf of the non-profit organization providing wheel chairs for people living in third world countries.
While not mentioning his dad’s name directly, it was clear he wanted to keep the legacy of Jerry Lewis as a champion of the handicapped moving forward.
There’s no desire within me to explore the complications of Jerry Lewis.
He was a gifted entertainer who used his life to help others.
It was a life with purpose.
Fortunately for many of us who remember those twenty-hour fund raising efforts on behalf of Muscular Dystrophy, Labor Day and Jerry Lewis will forever be entwined.
He made me laugh.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced.
His book on travels in California will be published later this year.