It’s not hyperbole to say Jerry Lewis was a comedic icon. Nor is it too much to say he was a humanitarian. His 47 Labor Day telethons – the majority of them held on the Strip – raised more than $2 billion to combat muscular dystrophy.
Lewis, who lived for several decades in the Scotch 80s neighborhood of downtown Las Vegas, was also, at times, a difficult man -- a clown who grew dour in old age.
Two days ago, Lewis died at age 91.
John Katsilomentes, the entertainment columnist for the Las Vegas Review Journal, was the first to break that news. Both he and Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman shared memories of Lewis with KNPR's State of Nevada.
How did you get to know him?
Katsilomentes: How I got to know Lewis was simply by working really hard at the telethon in his last two years of the full-length telethon in '09 and 2010. I had achieved a level of access that allowed me to write not only about Jerry but everything that was happening around the telethon and inside the telethon. In 2010, I was practically embedded. I had a room at the South Point. I wrote all about the rehearsals and some of the people who put on the telethon. They allowed me in to see [Jerry] work with the orchestra. I got to know his family then. I kept writing. I kept reporting. And after a while, I think he said 'This guy is a machine!'
There was no magic wand with Jerry Lewis. You really had to earn your way into his life. Not just during that period, all the time. Every conversation was something you had to be prepared for. If you slipped up and gave him an inaccurate fact about his own career, he would call you out on it.
What was he really like?
It helped to have a sense of humor with Lewis. Above everything he liked to laugh, it wasn't like he was just hardwired to be irascible all the time. We had a lot of laughs. A lot of fun times. A lot of it started with him responding in some angry kind of way. My experience with him I got to learn it was important to engage and listen to him. I tried never to cut him off. When he made what might be a very pointed remark, to be able to counter with some thoughtful remark.
How did you reconcile all the good Lewis did with his well-known negative side:
Carolyn Goodman: I think we all get cranky when we get older. You've learned so much more. You get a little impatient. Certainly, he had huge high points in his life, but he had some tough times too. He was a man of great sensitivity, but what a kick in the pants. I think of him and he makes me smile. I'm so sorry for his family SanDee, Danielle, his boys. Good person. Good heart. I'll get just as cranky I'm sure if I'm not already there.
Did he ever talk about his 'crankiness'?
My feeling about Jerry is his mood was often conditional on what was happening in the news of the day. If there was some kind of breaking news that was negative, like a terrorist attack or the death of a friend. He was watching news all the time.
This is a good example [when the Sahara hotel closed]. He had a long history of performing at the Sahara. He loved the hotel. He would go see Louis Prima there. He had a very strong bond there. I was working on the closing and I was at the hotel when I called him. I said, 'I know this is going to be a tough question for you, this famous hotel that meant a lot to your life is closing.' He was very, very upset about this. He had to call me back because he was so upset. I think he was just a very feeling guy, all the way around. And on top of that, he was in pain all the time. Jerry was in pain constantly. Every day he woke, he was in pain. And throughout most of the days, he had to fight that. When you're fighting back acute pain all the time, you're not in the best mood.
John Katsilometes, columnist, Las Vegas Review-Journal; Carolyn Goodman, mayor, Las Vegas
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