Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were introduced on a New York street in March of 1945. Dean was born Dino Paul Crocetti in Steubenville, Ohio, on June 7, 1917. Jerry was born Jerome Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, on March 16, 1926.
They were introduced that fateful day by a mutual friend, an Italian singer named Sonny King. At the time, Dean was a semi-successful singer, performing around the East Coast in nightclubs and on his own radio show. Jerry was eking out a living doing a "record act," where he would mime to records by famous singers, all the while mugging outrageously.
According to one later interview, their initial reactions to each other reflected the fact that neither was very impressed. Jerry thought Dean was "conceited, snooty and stand-offish," Dean thought Jerry was "a young wise guy." Despite these initial opinions, the two soon became friends.
Staying in the same hotel, as well as being chronically out of work, Jerry would babysit Dean's kids for him. Soon, by pure coincidence, the two would sometimes be booked at the same clubs. Jerry and Dean would sometimes goof around onstage together, heckling each other, doing imitations and cracking jokes. The audiences ate it up, the boys had fun, but nothing more came of it.
In late July of 1946, Jerry was booked to play the Club 500 in Atlantic City. A singer named Jack Randall was scheduled to appear with Jerry on the bill, but he never showed up. Recalling the times he'd goofed around with Dean, Jerry went to the club's owner, Paul "Skinny" d'Amato, and told him to hire Dean to take Randall's place. "We fool around on stage," Jerry assured him, "We do funny stuff together."
Dean, unemployed at the time, happily flew in and took the unexpected gig offer. That night, July 25, 1946, Dean sang a few songs and went offstage. Jerry did his "record act" and did the same.
After they'd both finished their respective performances, Skinny d'Amato, a slightly sinister gangsterish type, called Dean and Jerry into his office. "Where's the funny stuff?" he asked.
Dean and Jerry were stuck for an answer. "There'd better be some funny stuff in the next show," Skinny threatened, "or else."
Jerry and Dean, both needing the gigs, knew they'd better produce at the midnight show. The two retreated to their dressing room. Both Dean and Jerry were starving, as neither had had time to eat earlier. They told the club's busboy to go out and bring them pastrami sandwiches and some sodas.
As the hungry (and desperate) pair chowed down on their deli fare, Jerry wrote the genesis of the Martin and Lewis act on the wrapper of his pastrami sandwich as showtime grew nearer. Jerry had had an idea in the back of his mind for several months. He called it "sex and slapstick." His idea was to pair up a handsome, confident man with, as he put it, "a monkey."
"Every comedy team in history was two milkmen, two cowboys," Jerry reasoned, "Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, each team consisted of two guys basically on the same social level." But the combination of a suave, good-looking ladies man and a "nine-year old child" had never been done before in all the history of show business.
It was soon showtime and at midnight, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis "performed" on stage together- officially- for the first time. The used the basic outline of a show Jerry had jotted down on his pastrami sandwich wrapper as their guide.
It is impossible to say, at this date, over 70 years later, just how big the crowd was that legendary night or how long the original Martin and Lewis act lasted. Jerry has said the crowd was, variously, four people and twenty-four people; he has claimed the show lasted both two and half hours and four and a half hours. The truth is lost to time.
But one fact cannot be denied. The crowd at the Club 500 that summer night in 1946 went absolutely berserk. They were convulsed with laughter.
That night, perhaps slightly out of desperation, Dean and Jerry gave the crowd the works. Dean sang, Jerry interrupted him. Jerry tried to sing and brayed instead. The two squirted each other with water, did impressions, chased each other around the room, heckled each other and the crowd.
Jerry came out wearing a busboy's outfit and carrying a big tray of dishes, which he proceeded to drop right in the middle of Dean's song. As Dean tried to sing, Jerry climbed up and started playing the drums, making a loud racket, and making it impossible for Dean to be heard.
A chemistry developed instantly and was easy to see. Because of their respective looks and personalities, Dean assumed the role of the straight man, while Jerry played the clown. But because the two were so naturally talented, the roles could sometimes be successfully reversed.
As Jerry explained later, instead of other performers, who played to the crowd, "Dean and I played to each other. We never looked at the audience, we looked at each other."
After the show, Dean and Jerry knew they had something. They understood that they had captured "lightning in a bottle" together.
Sure, the act was funny, but Jerry immediately knew the secret of Martin and Lewis. "It was the love we had for each other," he sagely recognized, "Any other two guys could have done the same act and they wouldn't have made a nickel."
In the middle of the night, as the moon shone down, the two walked out on the boardwalk and chatted by the railing near the Atlantic City beach. That night, the act of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis was officially formed. The two were to make the entire world laugh, soon becoming the highest paid nightclub act in the country, starring in a hit TV show (The Colgate Comedy Hour) and starring in 16 movies (all money-makers) together.
Dean and Jerry were to be the most wildly successful comedy team in the history of show business for the next ten years. The team split up exactly ten years later, on July 25, 1956.
In their prime, the two had a popularity later equaled only by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. And it all started on the wrapper of a pastrami sandwich.
Dean Martin passed away in 1995 at the age of 78. Jerry Lewis, now 91, still has that pastrami sandwich wrapper, complete with the notes he made on it on that unforgettable night, all those years ago. He has it locked away in a safe deposit box.