When Jerry Met Dean
It’s difficult to explain to a modern audience just how huge Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were in the early 1950’s. I don’t think anyone in today's media environment could get that big and stay that big for that amount of time. The two men met in 1945 when Dean was working in nightclubs as a singer and Jerry as a comedian. Now when we say Jerry “worked as a comedian,” don’t envision him in the traditional sense of Jay Leno or whoever delivering some wry monologue about current events. Stand-up comedy, in that format, hadn’t even gone mainstream yet. It was still brewing in the mind of Mort Sahl somewhere.
Jerry’s stand-up act was something closer to a human confetti cannon. He would go onstage and just be Jerry Lewis. He was a force of nature. He lip-synced to records, he fell down, he tried unsuccessfully to drink water, all to hilarious effect. He just went out there and was Jerry Lewis. In the world of stand-up comedy, stealing another comedian's material is the cardinal sin, but you couldn’t steal Jerry Lewis’ material. His material was almost irrelevant. You’d have to steal…. Jerry.
And that’s pretty much what happened. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Jerry and Dean met in 1945 and premiered as a double act on July 25, 1946. Their act consisted, basically, of Dean trying to sing while Jerry interrupted him. Their chemistry was infectious and undeniable. These two guys, so different in background, upbringing and temperament, so clearly got each other, loved each other, and always, always appeared to be having more fun than the audience. To a country mired in the emotional and cultural PTSD of the Depression and World War Two, this was just what the doctor ordered. Martin and Lewis were a sensation, graduating from nightclubs to radio to television to movies in three short years. The world had never seen anything like it.
Enter Sammy, But Not That Sammy
Somewhere around this time, Milton Berle, or “Uncle Miltie,” or “Mr. Television,” a nickname he earned by being, at that time, the biggest star on television, happened to encounter a sixteen year-old, aspiring performer named Sammy Petrillo. Sammy was a likeable and talented kid born into a show business family. His mother worked with actress Alice Faye and his father was a song and dance man. What caught Uncle Miltie’s eye, however, was Sammy’s uncanny, and I mean uncanny resemblance to Jerry Lewis.
Did I mention it was uncanny? It was uncanny.
Berle then introduced Petrillo to Lewis himself. Jerry was reportedly impressed and, one can imagine, a little unnerved (See: canny, un). Not long after, Petrillo was hired to play baby Jerry Lewis in a sketch on the Colgate Comedy Hour. As far as Sammy's career was concerned, the flood gates did not open, but the trickle gates creaked a bit wider. He appeared again on the Colgate Comedy Hour, then on Milton Berle’s own Texaco Star Theater, then Four Star Revue and a smattering of other shows.
Eager for work, Sammy headed to Los Angeles where he landed a nightclub gig. Soon after, he teamed up with a singer named Duke Mitchell. Is this trajectory starting to sound familiar? It's uncanny. Uncanny, I say! Duke Mitchell didn’t look like Dean Martin unless he was standing next to Sammy Petrillo, and then, well, Sammy’s resemblance was so strong it’s as if your eye filled in what should have been there and wasn’t. It was an optical illusion.
Enter Maurice Duke! Who? Never Mind!
By now it’s 1950 and Martin and Lewis have just released their second motion picture, My Friend Irma Goes West. The film was the sequel to the previous year’s My Friend Irma and the prequel to the following year’s My Friend Irma: Infinity War (I kid). Both films were hits and a third film, At War With The Army, was already in the can. Martin and Lewis were on a show biz rocket. They had only cleared the launching pad, but no one doubted they were destined for the stars.
One person who, wise to the ways of show business, most certainly knew how big Dean and Jerry were destined to be, was Maurice Duke. Small in stature but large in legend, Maurice Duke was a film producer and promoter. He was also straight out of central casting: cigar-chomping, foul mouthed, brash and acerbic.
Maurice signed Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell as management clients and brought them to the attention of Jack Broder of Realart Pictures. Realart was a small company that specialized in redistributing older films, like the Universal Studios horror library. Universal Studios made Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 and Son Of Frankenstein in 1939. Realart re-released them as a double feature in 1953 and made a fortune.
Duke brought Broder to see Mitchell and Petrillo at a local nightclub and proposed that Realart produce a series of comedy films starring the duo. Now, you would think that, if you had been on the receiving end of that pitch, that your reply would be something like, “Maurice, we can’t make a movie with Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo. They look and act exactly like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and those guys are already making movies! You can’t just copy a person. Get a grip!”
But you weren’t there, were you?
A movie was made, titled Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. You read that right, and yes, it’s a real movie. As a piece of cinema, I can tell you that it certainly… lives up to the promise of its title. It also gave Bela Lugosi top billing. Hell, it gave him in-the-title billing. The film also has the distinction of joining Glen Or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space in the not insignificant, “So Bad It’s Good,” section of Bela’s filmography,
The film would also make Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis verrry irate. We’ll get to what happened, and all the other gory all details, on Wednesday.
NOTE: Thanks to everyone who has subscribed. If you leave a comment, please know that I endeavor to answer every one. We are making it possible to tag / alert people when their comment has been addressed but in the meantime, just make a note to check back now and again. Thanks!