Grandpa Jerry came to The Villages to see his “kids” and share a nostalgic evening of pictures, videos and tales of long-lost friends and bygone days.
Jerry Lewis, 75 days shy of his 90th birthday, spent the night kibitzing, canoodling and cajoling “Jerry’s kids” of all ages Friday in the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center.
At times it seemed a warm, mellow performance from a performer known for his outrageous antics and loud mouth. This was The King of Comedy at sunset, still addicted to being on stage and earning applause. Neither infirmity nor age will stop him from hearing those laughs.
“I started out in this business 85 years ago and a lot of you were just kids when you first saw me,” Lewis said. “Now, here I am all these years later, and here you are still looking at me.
“The most beautiful part of being a performer is an evening like this, when I look out and see all of you who remember me.”
Lewis, looking physically frail and using a cane to walk on stage, cracked jokes, sang a song and did a lot of reminiscing and a little schmoozing.
“I think The Villages is the most beautiful place on earth,” Lewis said, while sitting in a comfortable chair on the side of the stage, under a video screen. “I’m thinking someday I might move here. But they won’t let me in.”
For his fans, Lewis is like a family elder and they accept him as he is.
“I think Jerry was showing his age tonight but we still love him,” said Villager Steve Biasi, a lifelong fan. Biasi, 60, was inspired by Lewis’ movies to try comedy and cartooning in younger days.
“The reason I’m here tonight is to see a legend, a genius named Jerry Lewis,” Biasi said. “I would be happy if he just came on stage and said ‘hello.’ I want a chance to see him in person.
“I’ve been watching his movies all my life. His comic timing and movies are unbelievable. He had great vision and broke new ground.”
Lewis showed clips from the films and TV shows all through the 75-minute program. He would also fire off some stories and jokes.
“It’s good to be back in America,” Lewis said early on. “I just got back from the Mexico City Kaopectate Film Festival.” The crowd laughed. There were more funny takes on mother-in-laws, sex, and getting old.
Lewis is an old-school comic. He paid a video tribute to one of his favorite comics, Henny Youngman, who made a career of rapid-fire, one-liners. Other clips highlighted Totie Fields, Milton Berle and Sammy Davis Jr. Lewis talked about meeting with “close friend” President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office.
A video highlight came with Lewis singing “Sonny Boy” in a 1957 television show with his father, Danny Lewis. Then, Jerry’s son, Gary Lewis, 10, came out to sing with Jerry. “That clip still intrigues me, watching my son and my father,” Lewis said. Ironically, Gary Lewis was performing Friday night with his rock band at the Orange Blossom Opry, a few miles away from The Sharon.
Another family was touched by Lewis.
“My Mom is 89, the same age as Jerry, and she is in rehab after breaking her hip,” said Villager Karen Haley. “I called her up tonight and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to see Jerry Lewis.’
“She said ‘What movie are they playing?’ I said, ‘No Mom, I’m going to see Jerry in person. He’s playing The Villages.’
“She said, ‘Wow, that makes me feel better already. You’re going to see Jerry Lewis live!’”
The bond between Lewis and Haley goes back a long way.
“When I was a kid, my Mom used to take me to the show to see Jerry’s movies,” Haley said. “I was brought up on Jerry Lewis. I always liked him because he seemed down to earth and like one of us.”
The young Jerry Lewis can only be seen now is such classic films as “The Nutty Professor,” “The Bellboy,” or with onetime partner Dean Martin in “My Friend Irma.”
This was a far different Jerry Lewis on stage
He wore a black tuxedo with a white shirt open at the collar. He frequently sipped an orange drink on a small table near his chair. At times, his hands would shake and his voice would quiver.
But, mentally he was sharp, especially when telling jokes. He seemed to gain strength from the hearty laughter and applause from the audience.
One of the most touching moments came when Lewis sang the melancholy song, “Somebody” from his 1960 movie “Cinderfella.”
He sang without musical accompaniment and his muffled voice added to the emotional power of the song as Lewis offered these lyrics: “Everybody needs to care for somebody/All your dreams were meant to share with somebody/….Without somebody you’re nobody at all.”
That set the mood for Lewis’ tribute to the late Dean Martin. He played video from their manic 1950s’ TV show. Then Lewis talked about the split and how Frank Sinatra brought them back together after 20 years apart on the 1976 Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon.
“More than 73 million people watched us that night,” Lewis said. “It was a meaningful event for a lot of people who grew up with Dean and I.
“I can’t tell you why we didn’t talk to each other for 20 years. To this day, I can’t explain why. But I can tell you we re-established the love we had for each other.”
Lewis also talked of raising $2.6 billion for the MDA.
“I had a lot of people who helped and a lot of big stars came on the telethon. They did it because they knew I was fighting for the children.”
DJ Al Brady, who lives in The Villages, was a local host in North Carolina for the MDA Telethon. “Jerry Lewis was an inspiration for me and his passion for those kids was real,” Brady said. “That telethon was a long, hard job but Jerry never got tired and never stopped working. He made you want to help those kids and he made you care.”
Ellen Auld shared that feeling.
“I’ve watched his movies all my life and Jerry is just naturally funny,” she said. “He can make you laugh – but he can also make you cry. Everytime I watched the end of the telethon, and he sang ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ I cried.”
But Jerry is the kind of performer who leaves them laughing.
“If you can say one thing to an audience and they remember it, then you know why it’s so special to be a performer,” he said at the end of the show. “So tonight, I’m going to leave you with these words: A friend in need is a pest.”