JOURNEYS INTO NEW JERSEY
Labor Day is almost upon us. End of summer, back to school, and yes, hurricane season. While hunkered down as Irene approached, we also had time to contemplate other rites of Labor Day – such as baseball pennant races (not much as it appears that most playoff spots have already been decided), the US Open (when it was staged at Forest Hills) and Jerry Lewis.
Though he is no longer hosting the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s telethon, Jerry Lewis is in our thoughts these days. Much like Guy Lombardo on New Years’ Eve, Bert Parks with the Miss America Pageant, or Mel Allen on World Series radio and TV broadcasts, Jerry Lewis will always be inextricably connected to Labor Day based on his longtime role as spokesperson, fundraiser and cheerleader for Muscular Dystrophy
Lewis, 85 had been the M.D.A.’s national chairman since the early 1940’s, and hosted the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon since 1966. Lewis, upon announcing his retirement in May said that he planned to make his final appearance on this year’s September 4 show and planned to serve as M.D.A.’s national chairman.
But in early August, M.D.A. Chairman of the Board R. Rodney Howell said in a statement that Lewis “will not be appearing on the telethon”.
That brief statement ends a run that started in 1966 when Lewis’ first live Labor Day weekend telethon was broadcast on a New York station. It raised more than $1 million in pledges.
The telethon moved from New York to Las Vegas in 1973 and had a run in Los Angeles before returning to Las Vegas in 2006.
Last year it was broadcast by more than 170 stations. It raised almost $59 million to fund research to find a cure for M.S. and A.L.S. (Lou Gehrig’s Disease)
The live telethon usually ran 21 ½ hours. In it Lewis would sing, tell stories/jokes, and introduce stars. But most affectively, he cajoled viewers and urged them to contribute – mainly by speaking of or talking to folks afflicted by the disease. Through it all, he kept all eyes on the tote board ringing up pledge totals.
All this from a Jersey boy.
Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch (some sources say Jerome Levitch) in Newark. His father, Daniel (Danny) Levitch, was a vaudeville entertainer. His mother, Rachel ("Rae") Levitch (née Brodsky), was a piano player WOR radio in New York. She also made musical arrangements, and was her husband's musical director.
Lewis started performing at age five with his parents in the Catskills. At the young age of 15, he had already developed his "Record Act," in which he mimed out songs. Initially, he went by Joey Lewis but decided to change his name to "Jerry" to avoid confusion with comedian Joe E. Lewis and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. He graduated from Irvington High School.
Jerry Lewis first met Dean Martin in 1945, and before long became Martin and Lewis. In fact, Martin and Lewis debuted in New Jersey. It was at Atlantic City’s 500 Club in 1946. From there they went on to play nightclubs and television shows and make a series of comedy films. In their time they were as popular as anyone.
But then they split and each pursued separate successful careers. It would not be until 1976, during a telethon, that Lewis would be reunited by Frank Sinatra with Dean Martin, some 20 years after their acrimonious split.
In all, after a lengthy and distinguished career that included 50 movies, and an Oscar for lifetime humanitarian service, Lewis and his early years in the Garden State have not been forgotten.
He is considered a favorite son of Irvington and is still recalled by some for his days there.
On one online bulletin board recalling old theaters in Irvington, one poster wrote:
“My father says he used to see live shows there (Chacellor Theater) in the late 40’s and eray 50’s./...One of the stars of the show was a young Jerry Lewis...” (http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/10973)
Don Stroch remembers Jerry Lewis as well. On an online blog , he recalls having gone to the same school (Don was in 1st Grade while Jerry was in 8th Grade), and recalls Lewis as as a soda jerk at Gerstein’s Drug store on the corner of Chancellor Avenue and Union Avenue (Storch worked there too).
Storch also describes how once, after Lewis and Dean Martin became stars, they pulled up in Irvington, “in Lewis’ blue Cadillac convertible to the front of Gerstein’s Drug Store hopped out without opening a door while throngs of fans jammed the soda fountain and he started taking orders, sending sundaes, milkshakes and black and white ice cream sodas sailing down the counter. Mr. Gerstein’s voice bellowed from the pharmacy section, ‘Jerry, you’re going to pay for all of this.’ And he did.”
Storch’s blog also movingly tells a powerful story. After locking himself in a cloak room in the back of a grammar school classroom at Union Avenue School in Irvington, New Jersey, Jerry Lewis was told by school principal, Miss Bettz, that he wouldn’t "amount to anything" in life.
That Jerry Lewis is so associated with Labor Day shows how wrong Ms. Bettz was (not even counting Martin and Lewis, the movies and more). Personally, we will always remember Jerry Lewis as a harbinger of fall – this Labor Day icon who made the most of his skills - shortcomings and all - and in the process unarguably made the world a better place for it all.
They’ll be staging a telethon this Labor Day weekend. They’ll probably raise a good amount of change too. But somehow it will be different.