Welcome! Fridays are the day when we at the McElrath Cabaret Blog are going to present blog posts in our Cabaret Through Time series. We are going to present historical cabaret singers, performers, venues, writers, and musicians, and will begin to compile a cabaret timeline. We hope that you find it informative, and that you enjoy it!
Martin and Lewis–A Comedy Duo That Took The World By Storm
Today’s focus is on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who in the 1940s and 50s teamed up to become the most famous comedy duo of the time, known as Martin and Lewis. You may be wondering why I spend time talking about comedians on a cabaret blog; however, comedy as long been associated with cabaret venues and performances. When the shift started happening in the 1950s from single headlining performers doing solo acts to a nightclub performance with a variety of acts performing in a single evening, comedy acts were usually part of that entertaining mix. (This year the MAC Awards included one for “Musical Comedy/Performer/ Impersonation/ Characterization,” and have long given awards for Comedy cabaret performance.) The audience for cabaret and comedy are quite similar as well–both require small venues with audiences of no more than 100 people or so, and audiences who listen to what the entertainer has to say, either in spoken words or in song lyrics. And I love their work, so today’s post is about these two entertainers who had their ups and downs personally, yet brought a great deal of happiness to their audiences for ten years as a team, and more as individual artists after their breakup.
There are several sources of information concerning the comedy team of Martin and Lewis. For this post I have used That’s Amore: A Son Remembers Dean Martin by Ricci Martin with Christopher Smith, Memories Are Made Of This by Deana Martin with Wendy Holden and foreward by Jerry Lewis, King Of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis by Portland, Oregon’s own Shawn Levy, the television episode “Jerry Lewis,” which was part of the The David Susskind Show “Open End,” (Susskind was a former agent for Martin and Lewis in their early years performing together), as well as a video overview of comedy in America called “Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business Of America.” All were helpful in providing details about the comedy team, but probably the most important volume about this time in their lives was written by Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan, entitled Dean and Me: A Love Story. This last book is Lewis’s memories of their nightclub act, from start to finish, and I have utilized this volume heavily for my post today. Martin never wrote an autobiography, so I have relied upon reminiscenes from his family and partner to learn more about Martin’s perspective on working with Lewis. There are also links to Jerry Lewis’s website and Dean Martin’s website
According to Dean and Me, Lewis recounts that the comedy team got started like this: Lewis had been working in clubs performing what he called a “dumb act,” in that he did not speak, but comically mimed to records that were played behind him (19). Martin was on radio, working as a singer. Martin was nine years older than Lewis. They were both solo performers who in 1946 eventually ended up working at the same club, the Havana-Madrid, a nightclub on Broadway (26). Lewis was only 19 years old at the time. As was common in nightclub performances of that day, there were three shows a night, and the late show didn’t start until after 2 am. It was during one of these late shows that Lewis decided to get Martin’s attention. While Martin sang a lovely ballad to the audience, Lewis borrowed a waiter’s uniform to wear, put a huge hunk of raw meat on a fork, went upstage of Martin unbeknownst to the singer, and “suddenly went into a tremendous coughing fit, and a second spotlight shone on me. I was standing there with a three-pound hunk of raw meat stuck on a fork. ”Who ordered steak?” I yelled at the top of my lungs. Needless to say, Dean was compelled to interrupt his number” (27). Without missing a beat, Martin worked it with Lewis: ”Dean did a long, slow take for the audience, looked to the side of the stage where I wasn’t, and then–slowly, milking it for all it was worth–turned to face the monkey who had ruined his song. Our eyes met, and in that precious second, I saw the indulgent smile of the older brother I had always longed for. Dean was shaking his head at me, but he was grinning ear to ear” (29). As their gigs continued at the club, Lewis notes that “Dean and I would get up together at two or three in the morning and ad-lib some comedy for the late-night audience. After my initial foray, he had taken to retaliation, banging my record player while I was in the middle of my act, making it jump at unexpected moments. Of course, I had to retaliate back. And escalate” (29). And thus were the beginnings of their comedy duo act, which the audience ate up, with Martin as the sexy and cool one and Lewis as the comic crazy man.
They landed other gigs where they were able to work together. They eventually worked out the familiar pairing of Martin as the big brother, the playboy, and Lewis as the kid, and the putz (52). A big part of their charm is that many parts of their bits, unlike other comedians of the time, were unscripted, and there was a fresh spontaneity and fun in their work that captured their audiences (10).
Thus began the meteoric rise to fame for the duo. They played at the Copacabana, the top nightclub of the day, in 1948, earning $2,500 a week (77). In describing what made their act special, Lewis writes that “What Dean and I did on that all-important night wouldn’t have worked nearly so well if the crowd hadn’t caught on, immediately, to our self-assurance (the tuxes helped) and the fun we were having together. This ultrasophisticated audience had never seen a two-act enjoy themselves, and each other, so much. It was like nothing these smart-ass New Yorkers expected, including the critics. (Cough!)” (82). After their initial performance at the Copa, the bookers for the club “extended our engagement at the Copa for twelve weeks, at $5,000 a week” (85). Lewis says, “As a point of comparison, the apartment Patti (his wife) and I were renting in Newark cost sixty bucks a month” (85).
Not long after these experiences, the duo began work in movies. Lewis states that although they made much more money making films together, it was not as artistically satisfying as their live performances. The reasons, he says, were thus: “When my partner and I got up in front of an audience . . . we and they knew that at any minute absolutely anything could happen. Our wildness, our unpredictability, were a big part of the package. It was thrilling to an audience that we could do all the mischievous things they might imagine but would never really do . . . . The other half was that indefinable something I’ve talked about: our obvious pleasure in performing together. Audiences have a great desire to feel along with their favorite performers. Dean and I had an uncanny ability to get an audience to not just be viewers but to participate in our fun” (99, his bold). Movies were not spontaneous, and thus the team did not have the same impact in film as they did performing live.
Although the comedy team broke up on July 24, 1956, we of course know now that both went on to fabulous solo careers. Martin became a member of the Rat Pack with Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and the rest, playing in Las Vegas. It was around this time that Martin came up with his famous drunken onstage persona, and had a chance to be recognized in the press for the comic genius he was during much of the Rat Pack’s act. Both continued to work in film, and both had television shows for a time. Martin had The Dean Martin Show, The Dean Martin Comedy Hour, and Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, while Lewis starred in feature films like The Bellboy, The Ladies’ Man and The Nutty Professor (406). Although both performed at charitable benefits over the years, it was Lewis who will be forever tied to the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. Both men were great singers, and produced chart-topping records after they split.
But there was definitely something special when they worked together. There is much that the cabaret singer can learn from these two, as mentioned above in the quotes from Lewis. Giving the audience a chance to feel along with you, being self-assured on stage, having fun on stage, helping the audience participate in the fun you’re having, and not being afraid to be a little spontaneous when performing are tips that the cabaret singer can put into practice when rehearsing and performing.
Some favorite classic moments from Martin and Lewis:
A clip from the Colgate Comedy Hour:
And amazingly, some video from Martin and Lewis at the Copacabana–enjoy!
What are your favorite Martin and Lewis moments? Please leave a comment below and tell us about it–I would love to hear from you!
If you liked this post, then subscribe to our blog via email, Like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter–thank you so much for your support, because we truly appreciate it!
Weekly Post Lineup At McElrath Cabaret:
Tuesdays: Cabaret Tip Tuesday
Wednesdays: Ask A Cabaret Question
Thursdays: Featured Cabaret Blog, Website, Performer
Fridays: Cabaret Through Time