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It’s been almost a year since the legendary comedian Jerry Lewis died at his home in Las Vegas.
In the 1940s and 50s, he was a stage and movie partner with singer and actor Dean Martin. Their comedy act was internationally known and they were among the best-paid entertainers of the day.
After their break-up, Lewis became a director, actor, singer, stage performer and hosted the annual Labor Day Weekend Muscular Dystrophy Telethon for decades.
Now, memorabilia from those decades of work on stage and screen - along with personal items - will be up for auction. On Friday, property from Lewis' estate will be up for sale at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas.
It’s an amazing array of personal and professional items. There are about 100 items on display but all 400 items are documented in a coffee-table book.
Items for sale include a passport, several Nevada drivers licenses, a surprising number of guns, many wristwatches; a costume that Lewis wore in "The Nutty Professor," a $6,000 check to director Peter Bogdanovich in which 'Bogdanovich' is spelled wrong.
The executive director of the auction house that is conducting the sale says there is no minimum bid for items and he expects everything to sell.
“The fantastic thing about this auction is it’s an all no reserve auction, meaning that whatever we get on auction day we’re going to sell that is very gracious of the family to do that,” Martin Nolan, executive director for Julien Auction's told KNPR's State of Nevada.
Nolan explained that the items are priced between a couple hundred dollars to a couple of thousand; however, those are just estimated prices and somethings will go for a lot more than estimated.
One item that might go for a lot more than estimated is a very special piece from the collection.
“There is a beautiful LeCoultre watch that was gifted from his pal Dean Martin… The inscription on the back is ‘To Jerry, my buddy, my pal. Love Dino’ That is so touching because they were such a dynamic duo,” Nolan said.
The watch is estimated at between $1,000 and $2,000. There is also a Cartier watch given to Lewis by Sammy Davis Jr.
And perhaps one of the most interesting items is a hat.
“And my personal all-time favorite in this auction is the Stan Laurel hat with a photograph of Stan Laurel signed to Jerry Lewis. That’s absolute history,” Nolan said.
Nolan had the difficult task of going through the items with Lewis' family to decide what would go up for auction. He said the family understandably has to go through separation anxiety but he must also guide them to items that fans would want to buy. He reminds them, "that these items have gone on to new homes where people are really going to appreciate them, care for them, cherish them, enjoy them and maybe in the years to come, sell them again for more money”
A man who knows quite about a bit about the late entertainer is his biographer Shawn Levy.
“He held onto everything,” Levy explained of all the items in the auction.
Levy said that Lewis was a bit of a magpie in that once he started making money in the 40s and 50s he bought all kinds of stuff, especially cameras, watches, guns, clothing, and cars.
Levy believes his packrat nature came from having so little when he was a child. His parents were small-time entertainers who were on the road a lot.
“I think he found some stability or at least sought some stability in material possessions,” he said.
Some of the rarest items at the auction are photographs, drawings and scripts from Lewis’ legendary and perhaps now infamous film “The Day the Clown Cried.”
Levy explained that when Lewis tried to make the film his star had fallen and his silly, slapstick comedies had fallen out of favor in the early 70s.
As he looked for more grownup material, a producer brought him a script by screenwriter Joan O’Brien called “The Day the Clown Cried.”
The premise is admittedly challenging.
“It’s about a clown, played by Jerry, captured by the Nazis for satirizing Hitler and then used by the prison guards at Auschwitz to lead children into the gas chamber,” Levy explained.
The producer and Jerry raised the money to make the film but during filming in Sweden, the producer died and the production ran out of money and it turned out Lewis did not have rights to the screenplay.
Lewis left Sweden with his copy of the negative of the film and the Swedish studio kept its copy.
Lewis showed his version of the film to O’Brien who apparently left the screening room in tears, telling him “he would never have the rights to her material,” Levy said.
Lewis showed it to a few of his friends in the 70s but outside of that and a few scenes that have made there way out of Europe – no one has seen it.
“The rumor of this film and the idea of Jerry Lewis as a clown in Auschwitz has persisted for more than 40 years,” Levy said.
Levy said Lewis donated a copy of the film to the Library of Congress but with the stipulation that it wouldn’t be shown until 2025.
While Lewis was one of the top performers of his day and was highly influential, Levy notes that for many decades Lewis’ comedy was not considered in vogue.
“Jerry’s comedy seemed kind of old hat,” he said, “There was a huge gap. The audience grew out of him and no new audience picked him up.”
However, that is changing. Lewis is now seen by many as a comedy genius and a complicated one.
“He was a genius entertainer,” Levy said, “He was a pioneering filmmaker in many ways. He was extremely stuck in some outdated views that he would never let go of… he was old school and proud of it in a way that didn’t reflect well on his empathy.”
Martin Nolan, Executive Director, Julien's Auctions; Shawn Levy, author of "King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis"
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