Igniting a Firestorm: The raging inferno known as Martin and Lewis

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

The "firestorm" of popularity ignited by the inimitable team of Martin and Lewis


Igniting a Firestorm

The raging inferno known as Martin and Lewis


New York's Paramount Theater trembled on the verge of exploding.  It had neared its detonation level previously, but this was different.  Frank Sinatra had once inflamed similarly crazed crowds.  And Elvis Presley would later do the same.  But they were young idols whose golden voices could instantly transform a theater full of teenage girls into a quivering mass of bubbling adulation.  These guys, however, were simply a schmaltzy mid-thirties Italian crooner teamed with a hyperactive young Jewish comedian with a buzz haircut. 

Yet, there they were, in the summer of 1951, whipping the audience into a convulsive rapture.  As howls of laughter permeated the theater, it was clear that this up-and-coming vaudeville-style act of Martin and Lewis was writing a new chapter in entertainment history.  Show-biz historian, Kliph Nesteroff, would later sum it up: "Martin and Lewis is the closest thing we've ever had in comedy to Beatlemania."

The six shows on opening day, July 4th, 1951, were intended to accommodate rotating groupings of fans.  Most of the audience members, though, didn't move from their seats when the performances ended – even after Jerry Lewis pleaded with them to leave and let some standees sit down.  The problem was, nobody wanted to go.  They were just having too much fun to face the mundane city streets while someone else soaked in all the creative zaniness.  As Billboard magazine later reported, "There wasn't a thing the boys did that didn't get screams."The odd pairing of the contrasting performers turned the Paramount Theater into, as Billboard would rave, "a madhouse."

To accommodate the disappointed fans who were unable to get in, Dean and Jerry gave impromptu performances on fire escapes.  A blaze had clearly been set at the Paramount, and would spread across the country like a raging wildfire – the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis firestorm.  During their ten-year reign, Martin and Lewis topped the marquees of theaters from coast to coast, both as a live act and later as motion picture superstars.  As the rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour, they would become the first comedy team to make it big on television.  Their cartoon images even adorned the pages of "The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis" DC comic books.  Before the flames subsided, their likenesses graced everything from puppets to tape dispensers to salt and pepper shakers.

It seemed as if the one-of-a-kind duo had emerged from nowhere.  As with most overnight sensations though, years of dreary dues paying preceded the gleam of their spotlight. Martin had dropped out of his Steubenville, Ohio high school to begin a series of odd jobs.  Among these was a part-time gig at the age of fifteen, as an amateur welterweight boxer.  He was so broke during this period that between his formal bouts, he and a friend would stage fights in their hotel room and sell tickets to bystanders. 

Although Martin racked up a fairly respectable boxing record, he also racked up a permanently scarred lip and a broken nose.  It was time, he soon decided, to stop subjecting his ruggedly handsome face to the constant battering of uppercuts and round-house punches.  Another brief occupation in his early job-hopping period, involved the slightly illegal task of running moonshine across the state line.  Eventually, though, he fell back on an early love of music and decided singing might offer a less painful and dangerous way to put bread on the table.

Beginning his show business career at 17, in the late 1930s, Dean found scattered gigs in nearby Ohio nightclubs.  During a brief stint with the Ernie McKay Orchestra, he was noticed by the popular Cleveland bandleader, Sammy Watkins.  Dean dropped his actual name of Dino Crocetti and toured with Watkins as their featured vocalist, Dino Martini.  Later, after learning about a popular singer named Nino Martini, he again changed his name – this time to Dean Martin. Slowly, he developed a smooth crooning style and found fairly regular work as a nightclub singer.  Following a failed screen test for MGM movies, it appeared the local nightclub circuit would be his permanent stomping ground.  This, however, was destined to change.

The harbinger of that change, Jerry Lewis, like Dean, had bounced around in a number of jobs before show business success beckoned.  Originally sporting the not-particularly-catchy name of Joseph Levitch, the Newark, New Jersey teen dropped out of high school to try out a comedy bit in a Buffalo burlesque house.  The act didn't exactly reach the top rung of the entertainment ladder.  While a phonograph played offstage, he mimed the lyrics, complete with exaggerated expressions.  Although it foretold his future wacky comedic style, the burlesque audiences didn't care for his offering and Levitch was off the marquee and among the unemployed.  Apparently word had spread about his feeble showing, because other theaters showed no interest.  To keep body and soul together, he worked as a soda jerk and a theater usher.

Show business, however, was in his blood, since his father, Daniel, had performed as a master of ceremonies and vaudeville performer.  Daniel substituted Lewis for his Russian name of Levitch, on the vaudeville circuit and became regionally known as Danny Lewis.  One of his fellow performers, Max Coleman, later persuaded his son, Joseph, to give his record-miming act another try.  A hotel in Loch Sheldrake, New York signed him on and this time the audience response was enthusiastic.  Like his father, he used the last name of Lewis; then changed Joseph to Jerry.  With their new names, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were now ready for fate to launch them on their inimitable journey.

The starting line of that voyage was drawn on the stage of Atlantic City's 500 Club.  Jerry had lined up a gig at the boardwalk nightclub, and suggested Dean to the club's owner, Skinney D'Amato.  Jerry and Dean had previously worked together for a brief bit in New York's Glass Hat Club and cracked up the audiences with their impromptu clowning.  D'Amato recalled that he hired Dean for the 500 Club about three weeks after Jerry started.  "Jerry opened the show," he remembered, "then Dean would come on and sing. Then one night, Jerry decided to have some fun and break in on Martin's act."  D'Amato said he "ran across the stage like some sort of crazy waiter, breaking dishes and clowning around while Dean tried to sing."  Fortunately for Jerry, like the audience and his new partner, Dean Martin, the owner didn't seem to mind the broken dishes, and thought it was hilarious.

Martin soon reciprocated.  "One night I dumped a pitcher of water on his head," Dean reflected, "and Jerry went into this monkey bit.  But I don't think any of us realized that anything would come of it."  Their bizarre antics at the club, however, made the rounds as word spread along the boardwalk about the outlandish musical comedy duo.  "By the end of the summer," D'Amato noted, "nobody wanted them to leave."  During the day, he reflected, they would go down to the beach and "act like a bunch of nuts."  Their oddball promotional campaign worked and filled the club's seats for the evening performances.

Those seats would hold the first of millions of fans who, like the Atlantic City boardwalkers, hoped Martin and Lewis would never leave.  Despite their fans' hopes, the frantic years of "acting like a bunch of nuts," ended on July 24, 1956, exactly ten years to the day of their debut at the 500 Club.  Like the fluttering calendar pages that signified the passage of time in early movies, the days had flown by in a dizzying flurry.  Many articles have portrayed the dark days of their falling out and eventual split resulting from contrasting personalities.  That darkness, however, never dimmed the brilliant inferno known as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.


I hope you enjoyed the story.  If you have time, please leave a comment.  Thank you!

Submitted: August 04, 2020

© Copyright 2022 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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