October 2009

For Me?

When it comes to birthday presents, Jerry Lewis isn’t easy to
shop for

Norman
Lear

norman lear, jerry lewis, best story Frank W. Ockenfels 3

I arrived in California 60 years ago, driving across country that spring with a wife and small daughter in a new Olds 98. My father promised that if I bought a convertible in Connecticut and sold it in California, I’d more than make my expenses for the trip. Two months later, I sold the car for $50 less than I paid for it, to a used-car dealer, Norman Mamey—how I remember that name I’ll never know—who had a lot on Beverly Boulevard near La Brea.

I had come to Los Angeles to be a publicist, but one night, my cousin’s husband, Ed Simmons, who had moved to L.A. to be a comedy writer, asked me to help him with something he was working on—a parody of “The Sheik of Araby.” We sold the song later that night to an insult comedienne, Carol Abbott, whose name I also can’t believe I remember six decades later.

Before the next year was out, we got lucky and sold a monologue to Danny Thomas. We reached him at home, where he was working with his accompanist, Wally Popp. (It astounds me I remember that name, too.) Thomas needed a short piece the show-biz crowd had not heard before for the following night at Ciro’s. We got him something quickly; he scored with it, and within two days, an agent who had seen him phoned us, and we were off to New York to write Jack Haley’s Ford Star Revue, a weekly NBC variety show.

On our second episode, Haley did a sketch we’d written called “Blind Date,” about a guy and a gal who were to meet for the first time at her apartment door. Jack played a guy with inch-thick glasses that a buddy accompanying him suggested he remove before he knocked, so he’d look better. On the other side of the door, the same thing was happening with a poor-sighted woman and her roommate. The door opened, Jack’s buddy and the roommate moved out of the picture, and the audience watched two people, nearly blind, groping to find each other, sit down, pour drinks and speak directly at the other. The scene played as funny as it was disgusting, and Jerry Lewis, who was about to enter television with his partner, Dean Martin, on The Colgate Comedy Hour, called his agent and said, “I want the guys who wrote that sketch on my show.”

And so Simmons and Lear returned to California to work for Martin and Lewis on The Colgate Comedy Hour. In the year that followed, Martin and Lewis became the talk of the nation, and Jerry Lewis was widely believed to be the funniest man in the world. Comics often turn Pope under such circumstances, and Jerry was no exception. An entourage of the faithful developed, and they were expected to demonstrate their loyalty by presenting him with costly tokens of their affection on special occasions.

It was March when Jerry’s birthday rolled around, and we had been trying to think of something funny. Our office was an apartment on North Flores, and that day we had a window that was stuck. The landlord sent us a carpenter—and here it kills me that I can’t remember the name of this extraordinary figure, this glorious, indelible Popeye look-alike whom, on a sudden impulse, I asked, “Would you like to work tonight?” He said yes, and we offered him $50, which in the early ’50s was a good deal of money and is threatening to be once again.

We decided we were going to give Jerry his very own human being. We took our friend to a box-making and gift-wrapping establishment on Melrose near Fairfax, had him measured and had a box made for him. The card that would accompany him read: “You have pieces of many, but here’s your very own 100 percent full-time human being.” The box, when they finished it, looked like it contained a television set and was built so that the ribbon would fall into place. The Popeye look-alike wouldn’t have to go into the box until the last minute.

We drove out to Jerry’s house on Amalfi Drive in the Palisades but left our “present” in the car. When Jerry was getting to the end of the gift opening, we ran out, put the little man in the box, placed the cover on neatly, the ribbon falling in line, and told him, “We’ll make it $100 if you don’t smile.”

As soon as we brought it in, someone yelled, “Hey, Simmons and Lear got him a television!” We set it on the large coffee table where Jerry was opening the last of the gifts. It was Patti Lewis, Jerry’s wife, who first peeked in. When she removed the top, her eyes popped in horror. Standing on a chair at the perimeter of the group in order to see over them was the only doctor in the place, Dr. Marvin Levy, who, recalling his days as a med student, yelled, “They gave him a cadaver.” At this point, Patti screamed the loudest scream in the history of screams, the others following with gasps and exclamations of disgust, while Simmons and I shouted into the box at our Popeye, who’d closed his eyes so he could see nothing to smile at. “It’s okay, you can smile! Smile, get up, get up!”

The only people who laughed, I suppose because their relationship with Jerry gave them license, were Paramount movie producer Hal Wallis and his wife, Louise. Dean, who held another license altogether, was not in attendance.

Our “gift” to Jerry was busy having the time of his life being plied with drinks by guests who believed he’d been in the box for hours on a cold March night.

And I am so pissed that all these years later I clearly remember Jerry called Marvin Levy “Miv” but can’t, as hard as I try, recall the name of Miv’s “cadaver”—our Popeye, the centerpiece of this story. I should remember the guy’s name, because although I have given presents of all shapes and sizes since then—some of which probably elicited screams, too—he is the only human I have given as a gift.