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Backstage with Ron Onesti: Jerry Lewis remembers father at Arcada

Published: Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 3)

Besides presenting shows with some of the biggest names in entertainment today at the Arcada Theatre, one of my favorite things to do there is to feature show biz legends.

They were the men and women who were pioneers in television, movies and live performances and became international superstars. They were either the No. 1 box office draw in the world, the No. 1 recording artist at the time or the biggest star on television at one time.

One example of the icons that have taken the Arcada stage came to me because of another icon, Connie Francis. We had done a show with this recording star, and she had such a great experience with us, she became a life-long friend. And when her agent was looking for a venue for his other client, Mr. Jerry Lewis – to perform and workshop his touring show – I got the call (in the form of an email).

“Are you kidding me?” I rather loudly yelled at my laptop while sitting in Starbucks. As a follower of the Rat-Pack gods, to host half of the Martin and Lewis comedy team was almost too much to handle.

I was so much a fan that I purchased some private items from Jerry Lewis’ secretary of 30 years who retired and wanted to get rid of a few things. I have Martin and Lewis pens, Christmas cards, Friar’s Club program books and other memorabilia. I even have Jerry’s original phone book with hand written numbers of some of his close friends. If you ever want the number of Orson Welles, Johnny Carson or Jackie Gleason, I can get it to you!

Our show was a few years ago, near the time when Jerry was getting over a pretty serious illness that made him gain quite a bit of weight. I must admit, I was a bit concerned ... no, worried. But when he arrived, he looked great! The look on his face was intense, his demeanor, somewhat regal, very reverent. He looked up at the fly bars above the stage, the ones that would support the old backdrops from the vaudeville shows, and seemed overly interested in the history of the Arcada. He shook my hand, without a smile and said, “Nice to meet you.” That was it. I don’t know if I expected a “Nutty Professor”-style greeting, but it was still Jerry Lewis!

So, we had a sound check with the 27-piece orchestra I had to hire. Yes! Twenty-seven pieces. I thought the same thing you are thinking – does he even sing? Darn that Frank Sinatra! He spoiled all these old-school Vegas guys because they all joined him on stage with his huge orchestra, and they got used to it. And I had to pay for it. But it was still Jerry Lewis.

While the sound check was going on, people began to congregate around the theater. I received more press requests for Jerry than I did with any other act. There was literally a frenzy of people trying to get to him. It was so crazy that he retreated to our VIP dressing room, cutting the rehearsal short and denying access to everybody, especially all the press.

As I accompanied him down to the private green room area, he started asking me questions about the theater and its history. Rarely have I been in that famous Ralph Kramden-stuttering state, but it was Jerry Lewis asking me these questions.

Then I asked him if I could ask him a question. He said, “Sure kid, what do you want to know?” For the next 90-or-so minutes, I sat in his dressing room, firing off questions like Jack Webb in “Dragnet.”

He rattled off stories of Frank Sinatra and his entourages. He talked about the days in Vegas when they would work on TV shows and movies during the day, then do stage shows all night. He gave accounts about his father, a vaudevillian performer who gave him his work ethic. He shared memories of Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. But one “Rat-Packer” was conspicuous by his absence within the conversation.

Dean Martin was Jerry Lewis’ comedy team partner for 10 years. They were the world’s biggest act in those days, making staggering amounts of money even by the standards of the time. But they ended the partnership on the 10th anniversary of the first time they worked together at The 500 Club in New York, citing both guys’ desire to pursue other projects.

I knew I was risking being thrown out of this delicate yet powerful backstage experience, but I wanted to give it a shot. “Can I ask you about Dean,” I blurted. “It depends,” he said. “Get creative, I’m not interested in talking about the breakup.”

A few years ago on the MDA Telethon that Jerry was hosting, Frank Sinatra brought with him a surprise guest. It was Dean Martin. This was the first time they saw each other since they broke up more than 20 years earlier. “Did you know Dean was coming on the show?” I asked.

“There were over 700 people working on that show, and I was the only one who didn’t know,” he said.

“But didn’t you see him off to the side of the stage?” I questioned.

He continued, saying something to the effect of: “Yeah, I saw him. I didn’t give it a second thought because I saw him all the time. You know, the way people see Elvis flipping burgers. I saw him at the grocery store; I saw him in the car next to me sitting in traffic. You have to understand I loved this man. He was the smartest, most genuine and loving person I had ever met, the older brother I never had. I missed him dearly, but the time was never right for us to re-connect.”

When Dean walked on stage during the telethon, the two embraced like two old war buddies would have embraced. I saw Jerry whisper something into Dean’s ear. “Without being too personal, can I ask you what you said to him,” I reluctantly posed the question. He said, “I just told him I loved him and missed him, and Dean patted my back in agreement.”

“Did you stay in touch after that night?” I asked. “All the accounts say that we never spoke again, but the real story is that we did chat now and then. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist anyway,” Jerry said more or less. “But when Dean Paul died (Dean’s son who died in a plane crash) Dean really became reclusive. Ironically, we spoke more then.”

I really could write a book about those 90 precious minutes!

His show was a mix of stories, video footage, a few songs (he had better, with THAT orchestra!), and a Q-and-A with the audience. He gave the audience their money’s worth. Before he left, he handed me the cover of the kick drum that had his famous caricature silhouette on it, autographed to me.

“Do you know why I shared that time with you?” he asked. “I am still in Hollywood Heaven,” I retorted.

And then Jerry said something like: “When I came into this theater, it brought me back to my days as a kid when I would join my father in the vaudeville shows. I kind of felt he was with me for a moment. It was a warmth I haven’t felt for a very long time. It was kind of my thank you for saving this beautiful place.”

So every time a pipe breaks or another renovation needs to be done, I think of Jerry Lewis and remind myself that the brick and mortar is held together by memories stronger than any cement could ever be.

• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of Onesti Entertainment Corp. and the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Send comments or celebrity questions to spark@kcchronicle.com.

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