The elevator doors parted just in time for me to spy the hotel maid emptying the contents of a garbage can into the housekeeper’s trolley. We exchanged smiles as she passed, the opulent carpeting of Chicago’s Drake Hotel quietening my approach.
Jerry Lewis had called earlier that morning to ask that I stop by and pick up that day’s homework, a videotape of an event similar to the one we would be holding on July 25, 1996. Before knocking, a glance in the cart seemed in order. Legend had it that Jerry used hosiery like most mortals used Kleenex: once and then in the garbage. There they were: a pair of white, slightly used socks. When asked if I have any regrets in life, it would be not pocketing those stockings.
We had first met at the Riviera Theatre where my cousin Danny took the then-four-year-old Scooter to a double-feature reissue combo of The Sad Sack and The Delinquent Delinquent, both a safe distance from Jerry’s Pantheon. Fluent in gibberish, barely capable of standing erect, with eyes crossed and mouth agape, he came at me across a 70-foot screen. It was love at first “Fehoyven!”
More hours of my life have been spent defending Jerry Lewis than any other artist. It helps that he made me laugh. Not everyone found humor in the man. After I screened a gorgeous, 16mm dye-transfer print of The Patsy for a non-believing pal, all he could muster was, “Watching that was the ultimate act of friendship.”
It’s 1996, and Jerry is touring the country in a revival of Damn Yankees that includes a layover at Chicago’s Shubert Theatre. I’m teaching film classes around the corner at Columbia College. Would one of the most recognizable faces on the planet be gracious enough to peel off a few moments of his time to speak with my students? In April, a letter is crafted and sent to his office in Vegas.
Now it’s June, and I have still yet to hear back. Nothing ventured, right? But luck is restored on a particularly unpleasant evening in mid-July. I’m teaching a class on Luis Buñuel and the afternoon is spent screening what turns out to be my least favorite of the master’s films, Daughter of Deceit. It’s blisteringly humid when class breaks, so I seek refuge in the air-conditioned comfort of the Music Box and take in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, another film the genius of which forever escapes me.
The phone is ringing as the key clicks in the latch. At the risk of sounding like my father, I am in no mood for shenanigans. Then a voice on the other end of the phone says, “Scott Marks? Jerry Lewis.”
That’s it? That’s the best you can do? “And I’m Dean Fucking Martin,” I shoot back, thinking it’s a friend doing a lousy Lewis impression.
A deafening pause is broken with, “Scott. This is Jerry Lewis. I’m calling from my dressing room at the Shubert. I got your letter. Let’s talk about meeting with your students.”
If my heart could speak, it would yell, “Oh, yeah! Timpani!”
One stipulation: he wants to meet me on Thursday — 5 p.m. at the theater.
Arriving at 4:45, I announce myself and take a seat in the foyer opposite the box office. The face of the gentleman at the door is familiar to me from numerous television introductions. Whenever Jerry put in a public appearance, he’s the 6´5˝ mustachioed security guard in the background, hired to serve and protect.
Lewis is late. By the time 5:45 p.m. rolls around the bodyguard hits me a glance that screams, Hey, Pupkin. You sure Jerry knows you?
Five minutes later, the gates open. “Mr. Marks,” smiles Jerry’s muscle, “follow me.”
As we make our approach, the sounds of Sinatra’s “New York, New York” get progressively louder. After opening more doors than the velvet rope-keeper at the Purple Pit, we arrive at Mr. Lewis’s private dressing room.
“Professor Marks,” he says, offering a hand.
“Nutty Professor Lewis,” I reply, giving it a shake.
Jerry agrees to spend however long allowing me to interview him in front of 400 members of the student body. He makes it clear the he will ask no fee for his appearance. In return, he asks that I limit the audience to students and faculty — no “gawkers,” as he calls them.
“Is anything off limits?” I ask.
“You may not like the answer you get, but you’re free to ask whatever you want,” he laughs.
“Like, when will we see The Day the Clown Cried?” I press.
He is prepared: “You have as much chance of seeing it as you do of reliving the Chicago Fire.” Unsure of what he means, I take it as a “no.”
Was I happy? What would you give for a videotape copy of this reporter cruising home on Lake Shore Drive singing along with the “Macarena” at the top of his lungs?
For the next two weeks, we talked several times a day. Actually, he spoke and I listened as much as possible. No buttons would be pressed on my watch. We’ve all heard stories about the obnoxious, Buddy Love–side of his personality rearing its ugly head to dress down those incompetents among us who get in his way. But you couldn’t have proved it by me. For two weeks, he granted me total access to the total filmmaker and never once took a bite.
The day of the show began with a 10:30 a.m. screening of The Nutty Professor. The interview was scheduled for 12:30 p.m. with Jerry’s assurance that he’d be there by noon. At exactly 11:55, his limo pulled up. Jerry rolled down the window and stuck out an arm. “See Scotty,” he yelled while frantically pointing at his watch. “I’m early!” Mr. and Mrs. Lewis were sequestered in a room beneath the stage. At approximately 12:15, what sounded like an explosion erupted overhead.
“What the fuck is that?” asked Jerry, a genuine look of surprise crossing his face.