Audio Stories


June Cross: In your autobiography, you were talking about the kind of two worlds of black showbiz and white showbiz. So I wanted to talk to you as an expert, so to speak. I've been told that you knew my biological father, although I don't know. Do you remember Stump and Stumpy?

Jerry Lewis: Oh, of course, I worked with them.

JC: Really?

JL: Sure. I had Stump and Stumpy on the show at the Paramount. Dean and I worked with them. My God, what a small world. Well, there was an awful lot of stuff that wasn't in the autobiography that we can talk about. My relationship with Sammy Davis, for example, It was almost biological, we were so close. I don't know if you know about what he went through -

JC: Go back to those early days. How separate were the two worlds, because a lot of folks that I've talked to now don't really understand that in fact there were two show businesses. There were white showbiz and black showbiz.

JL: Absolutely, absolutely.

JC: Can you talk about that world?

JL: Sure. I'll give you a perfect example. When we played Copa City, Dean and I were the most important act in show business, the most highly paid act, and the most prominent. We were floating up in the galaxy better than John Glenn in 1947, and 1948. (Cough) We had teamed up in '46, and I booked the four Step Brothers to play Copa City with us. Dear friends of mine. I only know that this a great four-man dance act. I wanted the best. And I got the best.

Well, I come to find out after the rehearsal, the Step Brothers went to the dark side of town and were living at the ... Plaza, and that's okay, I think that's their choice, and that's fine. Come show time, they couldn't get a facility to drive them to the beach to play Copa City. And I had my limo go down to where they were staying, and I drove them to the Copa City and they lay down in the back of the limo. And I said, "What are you doing? You're riding with me, what is this?" And they explained to me that I was very naive, and I'd better know what we're dealing with.

JC: Copa City is in?

JL: Copa City in Miami Beach. I said, "What we're dealing with?" I said, "I'm not naive, I'm dense. What are you talking about?" "Well," they said, "we better have a nice sit down and talk." And we opened that night, and they were just incredible. They stopped the show cold, and I walk out right after them almost on their applause because they didn't stop. That's how good they were. (Cough) Okay?

And I'm no fool. Theatrical people thought I did that by design. No, I didn't know that they were going to cross over the kind of applause that wouldn't allow me to make my entrance. I finally had to go on their last bows. Well, there's nothing in show business than to follow a winner. That was part of my dad's teaching. You don't want to follow a dumb act, you want to follow someone that stops the show. And then you, all you have to do is show up. That's what happened.

But that night, they came to my hotel and I made it clear that they were coming to my hotel, and they sat in my suite until almost noon the next day giving me an abridged lesson in what I needed to know about.

JC: About race?

JL: About race and about, "This is just, just the tip of the iceberg, kid. If you think you're going to be in our corner, you better know what the ground rules are."

JC: Is that the first time that you ever became aware of it?

JL: Well, it was the first time that I was, that my whole persona was taking into the arena, "And this is what you're... this is the rent you're going to pay, kid, if you want that act."

JL: The next step was, I went into the New York Paramount with the Step Brothers and there were no problems, we're in New York. The guys lived at a marvelous place; they loved to stay in Harlem. They took me to the Savoy for my first time during that engagement. They took me to soul food for the first time during that engagement. Remember, I'm 20 years old, and I'm just, I'm king of the heap, but I haven't the faintest idea where the fun was at. And they taught me about auxfay and what that meant. Auxfay, for those that are not clear...the plantation owners with slaves, the slave would call, in pig latin, the plantation owner was auxfay, meaning faux, auxfay, faux; faux, auxfay. Pig latin.

And Sammy was the one that taught me the jargon, and he had the best time at how square I was. Oh, God. He said, "My God, you are so white." I said, "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" He said, "It's terrible. You're so dumb." And I said, "Wait a minute, I can't take that from a little jockey," and then we did our black/white jokes. I was the originator of - Sammy loved brown suede watches, watchbands with his watches, and I used to say to him, "How do you keep the watch on without a strap?" He'd say, "That's racist." I said, "No, that's funny."

He'd come to my pool and wear a brown bathing suit and I'd say, "You can't swim here naked." He said, "That's racist." I said, "It's funny."

And that was the fun that we had about it. I would leave the Chicago Theater and Sammy was coming in after me, and I left Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes in the dressing room and watermelon pits, and those were my jokes to him. And he would put up little Jewish signs, "Jews don't know anything about being super-superintendents, or landlords." That was his joke back to me.

JC: Was that funny or racist?

JL: It's terrible. It's terrible, but between the people, it was funny. We broke the stress barrier by making the jokes we knew were being done on us to one another, and I felt that humor was going to break that. It did. It broke it for us and made us stronger. And we didn't permit it from others. I used to do it before I knew there was a race problem in this community of theater. I made the Jew joke before you could. The black knows that.

Well, I began to learn. And then, of course, my friendship with Sammy. I went through the galleys of Yes, I Can with Sammy. I mean, I really lived with, with Burt Boyar in the writing of Yes, I Can. Sammy lived with me for nine months when he went through the trauma at Columbia, when he was dating Kim Novak, and what Columbia put him through. He lived in my home when the Chicago arm of Columbia threatened his life, when they made him leave my house to go to Chicago to marry Laurie. That marriage was a sham, of course, and it was done so that the sting of his dating their number one, premier star was putting Columbia in jeopardy.

I knew Harry Cohn very well. He was, he was a cutie pie. He wasn't a racist. He was a very good businessman. Well, he turned out to be a racist for what he did to Sammy. So I never, ever had anything further to do with him because I'm, I happen to be very, very loyal to those I love, and you can't hurt those I care for. You do that, and you're dead meat with me.

JC: Tell me about the Sands and the Step Brothers.

JL: Well, the Step Brothers opened for me at the Sands, because that's the show I wanted, and I go to my dressing room after opening night performance, and I hugged on them like you can't believe, because they did it again. They were just so magnificent. And they weren't just tap dancers, they were great performers. They had an electricity and a magic, and when they got through, the audience were so ready for me to walk on. I believe this was just shortly after Dean and I split up. The calendar's getting me again. I think I'm right.

JC: Yes, I believe you're right.

JL: I believe it was after Dean and I split up.

JC: No, because you went in and you told him Martin and Lewis aren't going on, so you were still together.

JL: Well, it happened twice.

JC: It happened twice?

JL: It happened twice. It happened in the last year that Dean and I were together, around '55, and I went to Jack Entrotta, and I said, "I just came up from doing the kind of show that you're paying us for and I found out that the Step Brothers are sitting and having dinner in their dressing room because they're not allowed in the Garden Room of this hotel? Tell me that they're playing a joke on me." He said, "No, that's, that's the way it is, because of some of the high rollers." I said, "Well, then you haven't got Martin and Lewis in the second show tonight. What does that do for your high rollers? If I'm bringing your high rollers in and they haven't got Martin and Lewis in that Copa Room, I think you've got a bigger problem than you know about."

JC: Were you really ready not to do a show that night?

JL: Oh, there would not have been a show. Oh, irrevocably. That wasn't a stand that I took theatrically. My passion was involved. My guys are sitting eating in their dressing room? I said, "You've got two hours to fix it." And it was fixed. And I walked in the Garden Room with them, for them to eat a second time. I said, "I don't care if you just have dessert, but this has to be done." And it was done. But then it was undone after I had left.

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