(The following was written by Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library’s staff newsletter, The Gazette.)
Jerry Lewis sat alone in the spotlight, reflecting on his career and on the passage of the years – for both him and the fans who filled the historic State Theatre.
“At the time that I began, which was some time ago, I was playing to this audience,” the 89-year-old Lewis said. “This audience who were 10, 11, 12 – that was the age of most of my audience when I first began. It’s such a good feeling to see that audience again 40 or 45 years later.
“So when I look at you and I smile, it’s because I remember you all so well.”
The Library of Congress in September acquired the legendary comedian’s personal collection: films, documents, test footage, outtakes, home movies and photos that collectively chronicle more than seven decades of laughter.
Lewis spent Oct. 9 helping the Library celebrate the occasion, performing a sold-out show that night before raucous fans in the State Theatre on Main Street in Culpeper, Virginia.
Lewis began by thanking the Library for its work in preserving his collection.
“I was at the Library of Congress today. Most fantastic experience I’ve ever had in my life. To think I had to come to Culpeper – that’s with one ‘p,’ he quipped. “It’s just an incredible facility, and anyone that’s got it would be very proud. I’m sure that Culpeper is as proud as they could get because they know well that it’s not something you put together in a week. …
“I’m so happy they’ve taken all of my work, all of my films, and they’re working on them. And they’re making them perfect.”
Lewis then launched into a string of one-liners – most of them politically incorrect – interspersed with film clips covering all aspects of his career: scenes from his movies, a mock screen test he administered to comedian Milton Berle, performances onstage in Las Vegas with Sammy Davis Jr.
Lewis also showed his emotional, live-on-TV reunion with former partner Dean Martin at the 1976 Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon.
The Lewis and Martin comedy team had been one of Hollywood’s hottest acts, but they split up in 1956 and didn’t speak again until pal Frank Sinatra brought Martin onstage at the annual telethon two decades later.
“That was an incredible night,” Lewis remembered. “My partner and I hadn’t spoken to one another in 20 years. The stupidity of that I cannot in any way defend or acknowledge. … I am so grateful that we had that time together because this country loved those two guys and those two guys loved this country.”
Earlier that day, Lewis toured the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper.
Wearing black shoes bearing Greek masks of tragedy and comedy, Lewis examined historical film equipment, learned about preservation techniques, discussed his collection with processing technician John Snelson and examined the personal scrapbook of one of his comic heroes, Stan Laurel.
Guided by moving-image curator Rob Stone, Lewis explored the film vaults and viewed the original camera negatives of some historic films: “The Great Train Robbery” (1903), Edison Studio’s “Frankenstein” (1910) and “A Plantation Act” (1926), the first sound film made by another of Lewis’ heroes, Al Jolson.
“I feel like I died and went to heaven,” Lewis said.
The Packard staff also had a few surprises in store.
Lewis toured the Recorded Sound Section, where curator Matt Barton displayed, among other items, a tape of a Washington Senators baseball game that Lewis and announcer Bob Wolff called for a radio broadcast in 1957 – a tape acquired by the Library two years ago as part of the Wolff sports broadcast collection.
“They never recovered from that,” he quipped about the sad-sack Senators. Lewis was presented with a CD of the broadcast.
Nitrate film specialist Larry Smith also had a special treat cued up: “Three Hams on Rye,” a Three Stooges comedy that featured Lewis’ father, Danny, in his first big-screen appearance – a film Lewis said he hadn’t seen since its release in 1950.
Lewis concluded his visit late that afternoon in the Packard Campus movie theater (“It’s gorgeous”) with a question-and-answer session for Library staff members.
“What a motley group you are,” he said to laughter as he eyed the assembled group.
For more than a half-hour, Lewis fielded questions and discussed his work with Martin (“We had so much fun that it was ridiculous”), the film that most inspired him (“Captains Courageous”), the night that Charlie Chaplin watched his act at the Olympia theater in Paris (“I walked on air for four days”), his first time on Broadway (“I had a great time; I made a fortune”), the dramatic role he most wanted to play (“Auntie Mame,” he quipped), and his proudest professional accomplishment (the Academy Award he received for his charitable work).
He closed by thanking the staff for its work to preserve his collections for future generations of film and comedy fans.
“I’m very grateful to you all for joining in the most fun I’ve had in my life – making the product that you’re taking care of,” Lewis said. “It makes me very proud. …
“When I pass away, I like to think that I’ll be remembered. I know I will now, for sure. You think about that sometimes. Not often, but when you get close to 90 you think about it – 90 is a hell of a number, ain’t it? … I do sincerely appreciate all of your help in taking care of the work that was my heart and soul.”