The press conference promoting the 1996 Philadelphia two-week revival run of Damn Yankees was moments away when the show’s star informed publicist Sharla Feldscher that he’d make his own entrance without an introduction.
“You know how he was famous for saying, ‘Hey, Lady,’ in his movies,” recalled Feldscher on the passing of the 91-year-old comedic icon Jerry Lewis on Aug. 20. “He opens the door and peeks in and says, ‘Hey, Sharla! Are you ready for me yet?’
“I’m thinking ‘My God. Did that really happen?’”
Feldscher said Lewis also posed for a picture with then-Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell and Phillies pitcher Curt Schilling, who were there to welcome him to town and present him with a cheesesteak.
Although that photo-op certainly wasn’t kosher, Lewis, born Joseph Levitch in Newark on March 16, 1926, did a number of things throughout his life to acknowledge his Jewish heritage and its teachings.
He embodied tzedakah through his annual Labor Day Jerry Lewis Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy, which raised more than $2.6 billion from 1966 to 2010 for “Jerry’s Kids,” those children afflicted with the disease. That, more than his films and other endeavors, is what Rendell will remember most.
“For most Americans like myself, it was that fundraiser,” Rendell said. “It was remarkable the amount of money he raised. The extraordinary amount of time he put in was amazing. He was obviously a very proud Jew and an ambassador for us.”
In his early years, Philadelphia was an occasional stopping off point for Lewis, who got his career launched, like many of his counterparts, in vaudeville working the Borscht Belt. Later, he teamed with singer Dean Martin to form a comedic partnership that lasted 10 years and included 16 movies, as well as a radio show. Martin and Lewis, in fact, debuted in nearby Atlantic City and also performed at the Latin Casino in
Cherry Hill, N.J. Following their 1956 breakup, Lewis came to Philadelphia a year later to promote his first solo film, The Delicate Delinquent.
He made personal appearances one day, first at the Stanley Theatre in Center City, then that night at Ashbourne Country Club in Melrose Park, where he told an overflow crowd how proud he was of his Jewish heritage.
According to that year’s July 12 Jewish Exponent, that and his plea for muscular dystrophy became the theme for the day, rather than plugging his movie.
Even without Martin, Lewis’ career took off to greater heights. The notoriety he gained enabled him to begin hosting the Labor Day telethons, which were highlighted when top celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., would come onstage to perform and kibbitz with the host, then often man the pledge phones.
After he stepped down as host, Lewis remained involved with the MDA, though he never fully explained why he was so committed to the cause.
His efforts remain greatly appreciated.
“MDA would not be the organization it is today if it were not for Jerry’s tireless efforts on behalf of ‘his kids.’” said R. Rodney Howell, MDA’s chairman. “Jerry’s love, passion and brilliance are woven throughout this organization, which he helped build from the ground up.”
But there were other sides to Lewis not often displayed in public.
In 1971 he directed and starred in The Day the Clown Cried, the story of how an anti-Hitler German circus clown is sent to Auschwitz, where, to stay alive, he’s forced to lure children to the gas chambers.
Due to a negative industry reaction, the film was never released, but parts of it have resurfaced on the internet in recent years.
What also surfaced was Lewis’ contempt for female comedians.
“I was in the room at the Aspen Comedy Festival when he said he didn’t find any women funny,” said Cory Kahaney, who puts together the annual Moo Shu Jew Christmas Eve comedy show in Chinatown. “It was jarring and hurtful. I will never forget how the room emptied out and the pallor that permeated the crowd.”
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