Tonight, Wednesday, Nov. 16, my friend Bob (the genius behind this blog) and I drove into downtown Chicago for an evening with none other than Mr. Jerry Lewis. Since he'd be signing and discussing his new book, DEAN & ME: A LOVE STORY*, I figured this might be my one chance to actually meet the celebrity who fascinates me more than any other. I also hoped that, despite warnings he'd only sign the new book, I might get his autograph in my cherished copy of his earlier volume, THE TOTAL FILMMAKER.
Well, I didn't. I didn't even get to meet Jerry, and the only autograph I got was on a "pre-autographed" copy of DEAN & ME. No face time, either. All that was scheduled was a brief talk, followed by some questions and answers. And, believe it or not, that didn't even happen. In fact, the whole program was over within a half-hour.
And yet, it was a truly unforgettable night.
I took a digital camera to Wednesday's event, but the lighting was too dark for any decent photos of Jerry. So, instead, I'm leading off with this image one from my favorite Jerry Lewis movie, THE LADIES MAN.
But let me start from the beginning: We arrived at the Harold Washington Library at about 6:45, and there was already a long line to get in. I exchanged the copy of DEAN & ME my wife bought me (Thanks, Amy!) for a pre-signed one, and Bob and I took our seats. The auditorium was crowded. Probably about 500 people, with few empty seats and several audience members in wheelchairs in the front row. At a bit after 7, after a brief intro, Jerry took the stage, looking hale and hearty. He made a few comments about his dad, told some ancient jokes, extolled the health benefits of laughter (though I'd like to see the medical report that he cited, claiming one good laugh a day adds 10 years to your life) and bragged about how he makes fart sounds in elevators. He also said that, despite being almost 80, he considers himself to be nine years old because "nine is innocent; nine is human; nine is vulnerable; nine is loving and caring and unclear and hoping and very wishful. Nine! Why would you want to leave that?"
In other words, a typical evening with Jerry. Old jokes and anecdotes, but told well and with warmth and affection. The audience was clearly there to genuflect at the altar of the Jer, and there was plenty of laughter throughout his opening comments. And then...
In the middle of discussing how unappreciated Dean was, how New York Times critic Bosley Crowther ignored him in reviews (in favor of Jerry, of course) and how overseas billboard didn't even picture Dean, one of the guys in a wheelchair in the front row started reading a statement related to the MDA Telethon and Jerry Lewis' "outdated attitudes." The audience wasn't sure what was going on at first, and neither was Jerry. "What is that?," he said "Hello?" Not realizing it was a guy speaking in a monotone voice, he said "I've never been upstaged by some recording! Where is that coming from?"
Then another woman in a different part of the auditorium began reading a statement, also criticizing the MDA Telethon. (It was hard to make out exactly what they were saying from where I was seated.) Confusion reigned, the crowd began to boo. "Find out where that radio is coming from," Jerry ordered, still thinking it was a recording. Chants of "We love you, Jerry" and scattered applause echoed throughout the room in support of Lewis, but the protestors continued.
Jerry Lewis (onstage) directs the security crew and at least one cop (does he have the authority to do that?) to take care of the hecklers in the front row. Sorry for the crappy quality of this photo -- and for that guy's stupid head right in the middle of the picture.
At this point, security guards and at least one Chicago cop arrived. "Let's find out where the recording is coming from," Jerry said, then addressed the crowd: "Ladies and gentlemen, I think you're entitled to know what's happening here." "Jerry, they're reading" one helpful audience member explained, to which Jerry replied "I know they're reading, I know that." And then, the mood darkened considerably.
"Fellas? Jeff? Dennis? Officer? Get them out of here! Now!," Jerry commanded as the crowd applauded. "The wheelchair is bullshit. Get 'em out of here." More applause. "Start moving 'em out, otherwise 500 people lose a night, and I say goodbye, and that would be bad." Grumbling in the crowd, then this from Jerry: "They're getting what they want folks, this was their...they meant to disrupt this, and they're doing it." More protestors were speaking up, so Jerry addressed the security guards and cop: "And we got a couple here that aren't too helpful, and that wheelchair as well. Dennis, help the lady up."
Then, Jerry turned his attention back to the crowd: "All right, let me try to get through to the regular people." Applause. "For all of the 54 years that I've raised over $2 billion for children that needed it" -- applause, cheers -- "only in Chicago does this happen." He referred to the protestors "sitting in the chairs that I provided, but they want me to stop the telethon because I make them look pitiful. What is more pitiful than this?" he asked angrily, while another woman -- this one not in a wheelchair, and sitting near Bob and I -- began yelling something that I'm sure was along the lines of "keep your pity," but sounded, I swear, like "Where's Tom Petty?" By now, Jerry had clearly reached the limit of his temper.
"All right, we got two more schmucks over here, honey," he said to a library worker. "It's very difficult to be compassionate and to talk about people that are, are mentally and physically crippled." He then turned his attention back to crowd control, telling the cop "Officer? You got a couple of beauties right here." He reassured the crowd "They will not stop what I do," then told the guards and cop "You don't have to be polite. They will get outside and get in their cars. Understand what they're doing -- there may be one invalid in the bunch of them. The others get out of their chairs and drive home. They've been doing this for 20 years -- they're called 'Jerry's orphans' -- that's what they call themselves, and they're trying to get me to stop doing my telethon for the reasons that I do it."
"Now I'll tell you the worst part of this," he continued. "The worst part of this is that they do --oh yeah, we'll get her out of here, definitely" -- referring to the woman chanting "Where's Tom Petty" near us -- "move that living waterbed out of here" -- referring to someone in the front row, though I have no idea what he means by "living waterbed". He said something about "how your compassion can turn that quickly when it's dealing with people who don't care about those that you're helping. I cannot in any way, matter or form help these people -- they're beyond help."
And finally: "It's like hitting a little kid with a stick, that's what it's like. But they are mosquitoes on an elephant, and we have to do the best we can. Understand that the human condition is such that no matter how wrong they may be, we're still watching a man damning them, and that's a turn-off. It's a turn-off to this audience; it's a turn-off to me, and they made their point. But I want you to know this: When I leave here, I'm going to have 500 people who not only were disappointed, but who will speak for me in the future to avoid this happening again. Good night and God bless you."
Jerry walked off the stage, the crowd cheered ... and that was it.
Even the crowding chanting "We want Jerry" couldn't coax him back out. The poor library employee who introduced him had to tell us he wasn't coming back, and the crowd began to sadly file out. One very angry Jerry fan screamed in the face of the woman who had been chanting "Where's Tom Petty" (or whatever the hell she was saying), yelling that Jerry had done so much for this country that she had no right to do what she did. But the night was over, Jerry had left the stage, and so Bob and I headed out into the cold Chicago night.
We'd driven two hours to get there, paid nine bucks for parking, a few more bucks for a cab and now the evening was over. But neither Bob nor I was disappointed. In fact, we knew this was much better than the evening going as planned. I'm not sure where I stand on the issue of Jerry's MDA telethons** (on the one hand, he has raised a lot of money. On the other hand, the people I saw in wheelchairs did not look like they were faking it, and faced some considerable opposition in making their protest, as ill-timed as it might be), but I know that, instead of an evening of well-polished anecdotes and well-worn jokes (as entertaining as that would be) I instead saw a true showbiz legend -- one of the last true showbiz legends, in fact -- have an unrehearsed, truly spontaneous encounter with someone.
How often, really, does that happen?
* The book, by the way, is very entertaining. Jerry tells some great stories of he and Dean on the rise and on top of the world, and even with a collaborator (James Kaplan), Jerry's strong personality comes through on every page. The last few chapters, which cover the post-breakup years, are the strongest in the book. Jerry's heartbreak over the split is palpable, and his love for his partner during Dean's years of decline is truly touching. By all means, get a copy if you haven't already.
** The group Jerry's Orphans has protested the MDA telethon for years. I couldn't find a Web site, but here's an article about them. On the other hand, if you want information about the MDA or you want to make a donation, go here.
All the quotes, by the way, are verbatim via my brand-new iTalk iPod recording attachment, which worked very well in this, its initial job. If I can figure a way to post the sound file, I will. Meanwhile, pick up your own iTalk here.