Select Page



 by William H. Benson

July 24, 2008

     Joseph (Jerome) Levitch, aka Jerry Lewis, of Russian Jewish heritage and from Newark, New Jersey, had an act: on stage, he would play records of famous singers and then pantomime their voices. In 1946, he was twenty years old, a geeky-acting kid who did not get many laughs, but he kept finding work.

     Dino Paul Crocetti, aka Dean Martin, of Italian heritage and from Steubenville, Ohio, had an act: he would sing, as a crooner, as did Harry Mills and Bing Crosby. In 1946, Dean was twenty-nine years old, handsome, with curly black hair, loveable, and he too kept finding work. Yet, neither had earned a top billing.

     Coincidentally, they found themselves working the same clubs at the same time up and down the Atlantic seaboard. On one occasion, late at night at the Harvard-Madrid on Broadway between Fiftieth and Fifty-first, Jerry started to tease Dean, who was trying to sing, and Dean heckled him back. They were just having fun, blissfully unaware.

     Weeks later, Jerry was performing at Skinny D’Amato’s 500 Club in Atlantic City, when the lead singer came down sick. For a replacement, Jerry suggested Dean Martin, and Skinny agreed. Dean showed up thinking that he was going to sing, but Skinny thought the two of them should try some comedy. Quick-thinking Jerry improvised.

      Dean played the part of the smooth and easy singer, who was always cool, who loved the women. He would play it straight. Jerry played the part of a child, a comic with outrageous and unpredictable antics. Jerry explained the act to Dean: “I’m the kid, and you’re the big brother. I’m the busboy, you’re the captain. You’re the organ-grinder, I’m the monkey. You’re the playboy, I’m the putz.”

     Dean would sing, but Jerry would drop plates, toss people’s steaks like a Frisbee, and make a shambles of Dean’s performances. It was slapstick with a smattering of old jokes—whatever popped into their heads. On the night of July 24, 1946, the two took the stage together for the first time, and the effect on the audiences was electric. Later Skinny D’Amato said to them, “Now that is what I call lightning in a bottle.”

     The press reported: “These two crazy kids are a combination of the Keystone Kops, the Marx Brothers, and Abbott and Costello. They will leave their mark on the whole profession.” Years later, Alan King, the comedian, said: “I have been in the business for fifty-five years, and I have never to this day seen an act get more laughs than Martin and Lewis. They didn’t get laughs—it was pandemonium. People knocked over tables.”     

     The act lasted for ten years. It brought them fame and fortune, and took them to Hollywood, where they made 17 movies together. Jerry was intense about the movie business, a workaholic, anxious to get it right, but Dean was far less so. Somehow, the movies never did capture the spontaneity that their live act had. There were arguments, and Dean and Jerry decided to end their partnership.

     On Tuesday night, July 24, 1956, ten years to the day after their first performance together at the 500 Club, Martin and Lewis played their final three shows at the Copacabana at 10 East 60th Street. Each show ended with a song, “Pardners,” in which they sang, “You and me, we’ll always be pardners. You and me, we’ll always be friends.”

     Alas, it was not to be. Their break-up was marked by a mountain of animosity, and years passed when they never spoke nor saw each other. Both enjoyed enormous success as a solo act, Jerry as a movie actor and Dean as a singer at Las Vegas and on television. 

     One day in 1983 Jerry with his wife, Sandra, walked into an Italian restaurant, La Famiglia, on Rodeo Drive, and they saw Dean Martin eating alone. Jerry was stunned at how Dean, then almost sixty-six, had aged. They spoke, but it was clear that Dean wanted to be left alone. Jerry wrote: “As we ate, I watched him eat. It’s a very strange thing to watch someone you know well eating alone. I tried my hardest not to be sad, but the feelings washed over me.”       

     The ancient Greeks had two masks—one with a smile and the other with a frown. Comedy usually first and then comes the tragedy. For Martin and Lewis the smiles had indeed turned to frowns.