Jerry Lewis And Ole Clay Cole’s Soul
By James H. Burns,
CBSNewYork.com Guest Columnist
NEW YORK (WLNY) – On Saturday night, Jerry Lewis will headline at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury, showcasing a mix of comedy, music, reminiscences and banter.
Presumably, not unlike what was seen in a recent PBS television special documenting a Lewis concert:
Yet all the more amazing, really, because Lewis just turned eighty-seven, on March 16th.
Perhaps even more significantly, Lewis is still working on a plan to bring a musical version of his film “The Nutty Professor” to Broadway.
With Lewis as director, the play — after several years in development–had a trial run last summer at The Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville, featuring the last theatrical score by the late Marvin Hamlisch, in collaboration with lyricist/librettist Rupert Holmes (based on the screenplay by Lewis, and Bill Richmond).
But it was during an earlier, only relatively recently recounted trip to New York, that another facet of the iconic entertainer was revealed.
Lewis was paying a visit to “The Clay Cole Show,” on WPIX.
Cole’s series, for the better part of a decade, (between 1958 and 1968), under a variety of titles (and sometimes on a more than weekly basis), was New York’s most popular local rock show ever.
(The show actually began on Channel 13, back when it was still a commercial station, before migrating to Channel 11.)
The program — often overlooked by rock historians — presented the American debuts of such groups and singers as The Rolling Stones, Dionne Warwick, The Ronettes, and The Rascals.
The series was also funny, presenting skits (sometimes written by legendary New York kids show host, and future Hollywood character actor, Chuck McCann); and providing early, free form air time for such comedians as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, John Byner, Godfrey Cambridge, Professor Irwin Corey, Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna, and The Firesign Theatre.)
The series was ultimately much more of a variety show aimed at a youthful demographic, rather than simply a “teen dance” program.
Cole, it was presumed, was heading for a huge career as a national TV personality. Instead, he evolved as a successful television producer, with international gigs.
Cole marked Jerry Lewis as one of his most memorable encounters in his 2009 memoir, “Sh-Boom!”; published, sadly, just a little over a year before he died.
(The book itself is well worth reading for its evocation of a long-gone New York (and its specific era in show business), as well as for a look back at what was once of the coolest shows in town…)
The Lewis “guest-shot” is even more remarkable, because it occurred when Lewis was perceived at the height of his solo starring, and film-making careers…
If it wasn’t, as it turns out, a unique occurrence in Lewis’ life, it depicts an element of the actor/writer/director that has never received much attention, or celebration:
One, it seems, that may ultimately be revelatory.
“Before Jerry arrived, his PR advance team warned us that Mr. Lewis was on a tight schedule, with a full day of interviews, and instructed us to have the videotape machines cued up and ready for his arrival. They would allow us just ten minutes with the star.
“Jerry arrived, handed off his trench coat, sat down and talked for and hour and a half.
“His PR men were pacing behind the camera, tapping their wrist watches, shaking their heads in disbelief. Jerry was unmovable.
“Although I greeted Jerry with a cheerful facade, Jerry somehow sensed my melancholy. ….Jerry was a well-loved fan favorite, but (he believed) he was never fully appreciated by the Hollywood establishment. …Jerry claimed to be a Hollywood outsider.
” ‘All those wonderful Hollywood parties you hear about…’ Jerry said. ‘I’m not on the guest list. I’m never invited. But I can’t let that bother me. I have to sort out what is important in my life. I have to just believe in myself and do what I think is best for my life. You must do the same.'”
“The tape was rolling, the conversation was getting very personal and I was aware, out of the corner of my eyes, that the PR natives were getting restless. So, I wrapped up the interview, thanked Jerry, and stopped tape.
“But, Jerry didn’t budge. He sat determined not to leave until I got the message, which was, quite simply: ‘This above all, to thine own self be true.’
“In spite of my TV-Q popular appeal score and my soaring Nielson ratings, Jerry was trying to make me aware of one simple truth. I was the host of a rock ‘n’ roll show, not the stuff that engenders respect.
“After about ten minutes, when his entourage finally gave up, I suggested that we might as well continue to roll tape. Jerry agreed and we taped another half hour. To Jerry, reaching out to a fellow performer was simply more important than his pending schedule.
“Most of my conversation with Lewis never aired. It was much too personal… (But) I will never forget Jerry’s kindness, nor the way our eyes locked when he said:
” ‘If you’re deprived of love when you’re young, you can never have it given back to you.’ ”
James H. (Jim) Burns, a writer and actor living on Long Island.