This is a chapter from my book about my one eared father’s tall tales of old Hollywood. Since it involves a celebrity switch-a-roo, a POM specialty, enjoy…
A Buddy’s Love
I might return to my parent’s brief marriage but my father had no chance as a husband for we now know he was suffering from a crippling dose of hyperactivity. He was a workaholic because of this, an alcoholic, too, but he was born in 1931 when addiction to bitterness and resentment was a cultural imperative so the bottomless thirst came standard. He never said no to a job and this sickness kept him busy all day and night.
He had worked his way up to a hammer and nails guy for the art directors union, building sets and painting backdrops. In time he was the go-to guy for painting convincing wood grain and marble. Cheap plywood and Pop’s deft handling of acrylic and enamel paneled most of the courtrooms, old west saloons, and ancient palaces on television.
One other responsibility members of his guild had was hanging around back stage at gala functions in a tux ready to fix a disobedient piece of scenery or tangled drape chord should the occasion arise. That kind of gig was usually reserved for the old timers, too feeble to wheel backdrops or hoist ladders, but as they died off Pop was well known as a reliable last second fill in.
In this latter capacity he’d mingle, invisible certainly, with fifties A list Hollywood while back home my mother fumed at his uneaten dinner and we kids fell asleep in front of the TV. As mentioned, he was missing an ear, and for that he was a magnet for the gimp crazy Jerry Lewis who, bless his heart, always asked Mike after the kids, wife, the family which my father did everything in his power to keep at arm’s length.
“Getting’ enough tail, Mike?”
“Uh, sure- you bet, Mr. Lewis-”
“Good- I got some chippies in the green room looking for company. Go get ‘em some beers, and take yer time, Mike.”
Pop did time on the Colgate Comedy Hour, that paean to imbecility featuring a rotation of entertainers, Martin and Lewis among them; headliners blissfully incapable of embarrassment: Dean-o drinking his lunch, Jerry ad-libbing Dean’s bumbled lines… the old man rinsing paint buckets, wheeling bandstands back and forth, boxing tools and inventorying power chords and props. But it was that jagged indentation where his left ear had once been that became a throbbing, pulsing Technicolor beacon for the mesmerized Jerry; the monkey man’s concentration would shatter, his gaze autistically fixed on the wound… See sheaves of paper hydroplaning, band leader Sammy Kahn’s score sailing away from Jerry’s spastic mitts, his eyes bulging, the rubber face freezing in a half gasp of lust and repulsion, leavened with a pathological dose of anger and survivor’s guilt… Let’s watch now as Lewis finds himself staggering towards the young stage hand who is lost in his own pathological soup, unaware that this comedy immortal, a man who by all rights and the well established protocols of show business should not even be able to see the little people let alone grieve for them, about to fall at my father’s feet, tears of remorse from the silent and capricious cruelty of Yahweh puddling around Jerry’s scabbed and bloodied knees…
No- That didn’t happen- What Pop actually described was that Jerry, whacked out on Percodin or Demerol or just genuine insanity, ran across the stage in reaction to some crack by Kahn, a squat, bald lawn ornament of short man’s resentment, tackled his musical director and bit- strike that– he sunk his fangs into Kahn’s shiny pink scalp, issuing torrents of blood that did puddle around his scabbed and bloodied knees, the assault requiring a dozen plus stitches.
Let’s assume, if that attack took place, Jerry made amends: sent to Kahn’s dressing room a season of top shelf hookers. Just as likely, Kahn said nothing as Lewis in his delirium had no recall of the incident even as his make-up man wiped the blood off his chin- and what with Jerry being a mob darling, likely he was indulged by Kahn with all manner of supplication for causing Jerry’s “spell”- sending the star a season of top shelf hookers to supplement the harem already installed in his suite of dressing rooms.
A Digression: The fact is, the Hollywood notion of insane Roman emperors like Nero and Caligula come from the borsch belt frenzy of vaudeville and Broadway lunatics whose popularity helped launder billions of mob dollars. Really, think it through: The pathologies that define public performers inform the pseudo-history of Hollywood far more profoundly than some fossilized tract of British probity; could Gibbon even remotely lead to Jay Robinson’s Caligula? No, but the profitable insanity of Jerry Lewis would inflate the thin armature of historic narrative some back lot hack used to devise well appointed falsehoods like Quo Vadis and The Robe.
Even better: Those same hacks also looked to the mobsters to fertilize their caricatures of power, like Mickey Cohen, the reigning emperor of the Los Angeles underworld. As much as beloved entertainers who behind closed doors beat their wives and children with unimpeded fury, the fedora level capos like Cohen inspired those fables of ruthless insanity in sandals. Granted, a British accented effete like Laughton or Ustinoff seems hardly redolent of those dese and dose illiterates from West 92nd and Lexington, but even as they essayed the most notoriously discredited of anti-Christian emperors, their foreign façades masked the originals: Bronx honkers whose strategies of persuasion would employ all manner of theatrical artifice, an admixture of low brow comedy captioned by malaprop laden erudition of physical threat fueled by hallucinations of a dead mother wielding the dipsomaniacal old man’s shaving strop.
But that’s the psychoanalytic pablum that the masses demand to stay sedated. The truth- about Jerry Lewis at any rate- is far more bizarre, to the point where no witnesses ever talked because no one would have believed what I’m about to relate: a whopper a contemporary of my father once told me about the original Jerry, not the cineaste and telethon operator we know and love.
Kenny was the name this crusty old timer went by- the Jerry he described was the scrawny, buzz cut, gene-spliced feral ape that even the perpetually self-medicated Dean Martin could no longer endure; you know, the caricatured profile on the Jerry Lewis MDA thingy you used to see at the grocery store checkout counter that displaced the March of Dimes coin drop.
“Yes, that’s right, Sonny,” Kenny the cretin says, “The nudnik you laughed at wasn’t the genuine article.”
“No you don’t, you toothless coot,” I snap, “Don’t try and peddle one of those damn conspiracy theories! I know that racket and the last thing you want to do is cut heads with me!”
But I couldn’t say it because I was down to a quarter cup of dirty dishwater and a hole in every pocket, so I let this yannigan have the floor after I soft-soaped him for a refill and the blue plate special.
“We’re at the Copa, circa ’55,” he starts. “After hours and the place turns into a “private” club so the swells can keep drinking. Frank is there; so is Carlo Gambino and a select few of the mayor’s friends, including former mayor Vinny Impellitteri, the Sicilian Imp, the last defense of La Cosa Nostra against those Irish wankers who call themselves Cath-o-hol-lics.”
“Yeah,” I says, “Get to the point.”
“So, your Jerry Lewis, the potzel, he’s there, too, like a hungry seal he’s being tossed fried calamari by Rosie Clooney who’s probably banging Frank and an army of uncut Sicilian salami; and the mutant Lewis is slapping his fins and arf-arfing with every stringy tentacle he catches in his gaping maw- and suddenly the former mayor, Impy, he reaches for a lemon wedge to juice up the squid to help himself and this meschugener Lewis, I swear he’s some mad doctor’s laboratory mistake of half chimp, half lobotomy- this Itdgit Galoot, he grabs his honor by the ears and plants on him an open mouth kiss, of course to the amusement of the lubricated assembled- until Jerry starts putting pressure on the mayor’s temples causing the mayor’s tongue to protrude at which point a frothy suds of blood and vomit spills out and the berzerk Jerry bites down and yanks the mayor’s tongue out by the roots, so help me St. Shadrach. Then the mad man proceeds to chase a terrified Clooney about the room, waiving the slimy appendage around like a bola, flicking blood and vomit every which way.”
“Jilly Rizzo, Sinatra’s muscle, stands up and looks at Frank in the front who looks at Carlo Gambino at a back table who nods and Frank turns and nods to Jilly and Jilly fires his 9×19 Glock at Lewis, shattering the whacko’s jaw, takes aim again as the psychopath continues galloping after the hysterical Clooney, fires and misses Lewis altogether but hits the matre d’s eight year old daughter who had snuck out from the kitchen to see her idol, who by now has some inkling of what is happening and makes like a steeple jumper, leaping over tables and patrons who dive for cover as the bullets keep coming, Lewis spitting blood and teeth, cackling like a headless rider whipsawing through the Tahitian decor, knocking over the cigarette girl with a forearm just for shits and grins, her tray flinging the smokes, notions and sundries in the air as another stray bullet goes through her right eye, her brains slapping in the sawdust and causing Jerry to lose his footing, slipping and sliding towards the john where, responding to the insults at his poor marksmanship, Jilly barrels through the crowd, crushing the windpipe of a mink wrapped dowager out for a few final thrills who has been felled by a bullet to the spine, Lewis scuttling towards the toilet stalls, within one of which he has hidden his own hold out piece, as he has in joints all over town; the Beretta stashed behind the water box above the chain-pull toilet is yanked loose, the squawking mad man turns and puts four slugs into Jilly’s fat as Jilly empties his three remaining rounds into what was left of Jerry’s face.”
“The last thing Jilly saw before he came out of his coma three weeks later was the flayed arms and legs of the dead original Jerry Lewis twitching in rhythm with the spurts of blood pissing out his bat sized ears.”
“That’s a bit rich,” I say, mopping up pepper sprayed oatmeal doing a weak impression of turkey gravy with a slice of white refined floured foam insulation the FDA used to call bread, already.
“Yeah,” says Kenny, “a night to remember. But, this being then, and the collateral dead being female, the men concerned had money change hands and the whole thing was covered up. There may have been a few witnesses iced for the temerity of asking for hush money but the real problem was dead Jerry Lewis.”
I have space between my first and second upper right side bicuspids so I take this bent fabric’s calling card and saw out the gristle from that turkey patty and spit the twig at the wide bodied rump of our waitress as she bends over to wipe something edible off the scuffed toes of her bowling shoes. I surmise she’s presenting, and though I don’t drink before noon, her credit at Irv’s Liquor Mart will get me through the weekend holed up in her Air Stream Stella beached at Red and Yuell’s yonder before the purloined SS checks of dear departed but not reported Pop comes through Monday morning, the first day of the rest of my remaining life.
“Yep,” Kenny belches, “the brain can only handle so much at one time. The world still needed the idea of a Jerry Lewis. It took about six months to train a down and out Lewis impersonator named Sammy Petrillo to take over for the real one but it came up aces-
Petrillo took off as the new, more measured Jerry and from this came the beloved films and immeasurable good will and money for the MDA mission.” Kenny raised his brown paper bag to toast: “Good shot, Jilly!”