Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis circa 1950
According to Jerry, what set Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis above the other great comedy duos was simple enough. Burns & Allen, Abbott & Costello, Hope & Crosby, and all the rest, were vaudevillians, stage performers who worked with an audience and to a script. Martin & Lewis worked spontaneously. They privately discussed ideas and then ran with them. But there was something else. George Burns told Jerry over dinner that Dean was ‘the greatest straight man I’ve ever seen.’ The majority of comedians with good rhythm used ‘beats’, small hesitations, to set up their jokes. But not Dean Martin.
500 Club, Atlantic City
When the two men first met in March 1945, Dean was a 28 year-old crooner and 19 year-old Jerry struggled with a ‘lip synching’ act. Both of them were stuck in entertainers’ limbo. Many people initially thought Dino was a drunk and a buffoon. They were wrong. ‘He was as sharp as a shit-house rat’, said Jerry, ‘and he understood every move he ever made, and every move everybody else made.’ Both men stayed out of World War Two because they were genuine 4-Fs. Dean had a double hernia and Jerry’s problem was a congenital defect, a heart murmur. Dean was content to be 4-F, but Jerry had badly wanted to join up. Sinatra was also a genuine 4-F, yet those who accused him of draft-dodging threw tomatoes at the front of the Paramount Theatre when he played there in 1944.
Paul ‘Skinny’ D’Amato (Centre) with Martin & Lewis at his 500 Club
Martin & Lewis first hit it big at the 500 Club in Atlantic City, the city’s biggest nightclub which was ran by Paul ‘Skinny’ D’Amato, a man strongly suspected of having ‘Mob’ connections. It was Jerry who suggested Dino would be a good replacement for one of their performers who had fallen ill. It was past midnight, July 25, 1946, when the duo played to just a couple of dozen patrons. Jerry began interrupting Dean’s songs with wisecracks and Dean would interject in his lip-synching act. The following night, 200 of the joint’s 240 seats were taken for the first of their three shows. Lines stretched around the block for the other two. D’Amato quickly upped their fee from $150 a week to $750 a week each. When singer Sophie Tucker caught their act and told the local paper they were ‘a combination of the Keystone Kops, the Marx Brothers, and Abbott & Costello, they knew they were on their way.
Dean & Jerry on stage at the Copa 1949
The crème de la crème of all the nightclubs in America during the forties and fifties was the Copacabana in New York City. It opened in November 1940 and was owned by the Mob, the proprietor being none other than New York crime boss Frank Costello. His front-man was tough guy Jules Podell, a nasty piece of work known for his intolerance and racism. When Sammy Davis Junior’s act ran overtime one evening he was heard to yell, ‘Get off my stage, nigger!’ When Podell offered Martin & Lewis half what they were getting elsewhere in 1948, their agent turned him down. Before long there was a counter-offer of $2,500 a week and the duo debuted there in April that year. Booked to do a 25 minute act, they finally walked off stage to thunderous applause after 50 minutes! The wonderful singer Vivian Blaine was at the top of the bill that night, but the crowd wanted the new boys and she half-heartedly sang just two songs before leaving the stage in tears. The management put Dean and Jerry at the top of the bill the next morning at $5,000 a week, leaving poor Vivien no option but to quit on the spot.
To comprehend the kind of money Martin & Lewis were making in 1948, it is interesting to note that when they were bringing in $7,500 a week each, the apartment Jerry and his wife Patti were renting in Newark was costing them just $60 a month! By the early fifties the weekly pay had leapt to $12,000 each. In California, the boys opened in August 1948 at Slapsy Maxie’s, on the Miracle Mile. And they were a knockout. The very next morning the studios came calling. Louis B. Mayer at MGM offered $40,000 a picture, but insisted on an ironclad control over all their outside work. They learned later that LB declared: ‘The guinea’s not bad, but what do I do with the monkey?’
Universal offered $30,000 per film; Fox offered a bit less but wanted a six-picture deal; United Artists suggested starring them in a remake of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; Harry Cohn at Columbia was unimpressed, describing them as ‘The Three Stooges, minus one’; and Warners offered the most money, but only for a seven-picture deal. The last cab off the rank was Paramount, the studio Jerry hoped would sign them. They offered $50,000 a picture to start with, increasing to a ceiling of $1,250,000 a fil over the next five years! Jerry was over the moon when they signed with the studio that boasted the likes of Gary Cooper, Mae West, The Marx Brothers and Hope & Crosby. Their first picture would be My Friend Irma.
Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Casino
During the 40s and 50s, before the Mob lost its control on the nightclubs and on Las Vegas in particular, there was scarcely an entertainer of note who did not have to deal with them in some form or another. Even though he had known wise-guys all his life, Frank Sinatra remained in awe of them even when he was top of the pile. Those who knew him said they made him feel tougher just by association. Dean Martin, on the other hand, never gave them the time of day. Whenever a deal or booking needed negotiating, he would simply play drunk or dumb and refer them to Jerry, telling them to, ‘talk to the Jew’. Then Dean would quietly slip away to play his beloved golf.
Dean & Sinatra on the golf course
Ironically, while Jerry was racking up huge gambling debts at Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo casino in Vegas, (but was astute enough to make sure he paid back every cent over a couple of years), Dean was squandering around $3 million to golf sharks at the California Country Club over a similar period of time. Dean was a fine golfer on a six handicap, but the ‘sharks’ were quite a bit better and had him playing for stakes starting at $5,000 a round! Jerry always claimed that Dean loved women and booze a lot – but he loved golf more.