By Fred Muenz
In June, 1917, the wife of an Italian immigrant barber in Steubenville, Ohio gave birth to a son, Dino Paul Crocetti (aka Dean Martin). Since Italian was the only language spoken in the Crocetti home, Dino and his older brother William did not speak English until they started school at age five. Bullied for his broken English, Dino hated school and finally dropped out in the 10th grade. At age 15, he was boxing under the name of Kid Crochet. Of his 12 professional bouts, he claimed to have won “all but eleven”. During this time, he also worked for a bootlegger, was a roulette croupier in an illegal casino, dealt blackjack, worked as a laborer in a steel mill and still found time to sing with local bands under the stage name, Dino Martin. By the early 1940’s, he had developed his own singing style and was performing with some of the most popular bands in the area. He was now Dean Martin. Booked at New York’s Riobamba Nightclub in 1943, he was a flop when he followed Frank Sinatra’s act, but he had made a friend in Sinatra.
In March, 1926, Joseph Levitch (aka Jerry Lewis) was born in Newark, New Jersey. His father, Daniel, was a vaudeville entertainer who performed under the stage name, Danny Lewis. His mother, Rachel, was also an entertainer, and played piano for a local radio station. By age five, young Joseph would often perform onstage alongside his parents in the Catskills. By age 15, he had dropped out of the 10th grade and had developed an act in which he exaggeratedly mimed to songs being played on a phonograph. He changed his stage name to Jerry Lewis, to avoid confusion with comedian Joe E. Lewis and boxing champ Joe Lewis.
In 1945, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis met at the Glass Hat Club in New York, where both were performing there. They debuted as an act in July, 1946 at the 500 Club in Atlantic City. When the club’s owner threatened to fire them if they didn’t improve, they dropped the scripted jokes. Dean sang and Jerry, dressed as a busboy, dropped plates, performed slapstick, interrupted the song by heckling Martin and generally made shambles of the place as they chased each other around the stage, while the audience was convulsed with laughter. They were a hit and well-paying engagements followed, including the Copacabana in New York. In June, 1948, they appeared on the very first episode of Ed Sullivan’s new TV show, The Toast of the Town. The following year, they were signed to do their own NBC radio show. That same year, Paramount Pictures producer Hal Wallis signed the pair to provide comedy relief in the film MY FRIEND IRMA (1949). Martin was happy to leave New York, since he suffered from claustrophobia, would not use elevators, and the tall buildings forced him to climb many flights of stairs. California simply had fewer tall buildings. Their Paramount contract allowed them to make one independent film a year, which they could co-produce. Their first independent production was AT WAR WITH THE ARMY (1950). After five years at Paramount, Dean was tired of the scripts limiting him to romantic leads, while the films centered more and more on Jerry’s antics. The last straw came when Look Magazine used a publicity photo of the pair for it’s cover, but cropped Dean out of the picture. Dean angerly told Jerry that all he was to him was a dollar sign, and on July 26, 1956, ten years to the day that they teamed up, Dean left the act. After the split, Dean’s career reached new heights. His records were selling well, and he made a number of successful movies. He became a member of his friend Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and appeared with them in several films. This was followed by a hugely successful TV show. Meanwhile, Jerry was also making a string of commercially successful films and had become Paramount’s most popular star.
The two did not speak for 20 years, until Frank Sinatra arranged for Dean to make a surprise appearance on Jerry’s 1976 Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. When Dean’s son died in a plane crash in 1987, Jerry attended the funeral, sitting in the back of the chapel so he wouldn’t be recognized. When Dean found out that Jerry had been there, he called him, and they spoke for over an hour. In 1989, they were together for the last time when Jerry rolled a birthday cake onto the stage at Bally’s in Las Vegas and sang Happy Birthday to Dean on his 72nd birthday. They stayed in touch until Dean Martin passed away on December 25, 1995. Jerry Lewis died in August, 2017.
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