Joseph Levitch (Jerry Lewis) was born in Newark, New Jersey, at Beth Israel Hospital on March 16, 1926. Note: at least one source claims Jerry's birth name was actually Jerome Levitch. Although he may have been referred to as "Joey" in these very early years, henceforth in this article, for the sake of simplicity and to avoid confusion, he will be referred to as "Jerry."
Jerry's parents were Daniel Levitch (he performed under the stage name "Danny Lewis"), a small-time journeyman master of ceremonies and vaudevillian, and Rachel ("Rae Lewis") nee Brodsky, a pianist, who would accompany Danny on their gigs around the country.
Little Jerry made his performing debut at a club in the Catskills at the age of six. He came on the stage and sang the then-popular depression era song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" But besides singing, Jerry accidentally stepped on a stage light during his performance and it exploded. This accidental misstep surprised Jerry and evoked his first-ever laugh from an audience. "Not all kids would have liked being laughed at," recalled Jerry years later, "but I was a strange kid." Jerry said his next performance was at the age of eight.
Because Jerry's parents were so often on the road performing, he was left in the care of various relatives, at various and sundry locations. Jerry recalled: "I was a Fed-Ex kid." He once claimed he had to enroll in 30 different schools in a two-year period, as his parents left him to tread the boards.
Jerry was often left in the care of his beloved grandmother, Sara Rothberg. Jerry was to always remember how reassuring it was when he would lie sleeping on the floor, among scraps of cloth, and see Grandma Sara's foot going up and down on her sewing machine. Jerry and his Grandma Sara became extremely close and the two would have heart-to-heart talks together. "I want to be somebody," Jerry would tell her.
"You're a human being, aren't you?" asked Grandma Sara.
"Yeah", but I want to be somebody," Jerry replied. (The two had a very good communication line and Grandma Sara understood what Jerry meant.)
In 1937, when Jerry was 11, Grandma Sara became very ill and was taken to the local hospital. Missing his closest friend, after awhile, Jerry called the hospital and asked about the condition of Sara Rothberg, telling them she was his grandmother. "I'm sorry son," he was told, "but your grandmother has just expired".
"I don't know what that means," said Jerry, "does that man she's going to be alright?"
The loss of Grandma Sara was devastating to Jerry and the poverty he grew up in didn't make his youth any more pleasant. He and his family lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Jerry was to later recall using paper bags for toilet paper. The family bathroom in the Lewis house was without a lock on the door and Jerry would recall he and his parents having to whistle when nature called so others would know the bathroom was occupied.
A bar-mitzvah is a proud day for any Jewish boy and Jerry's came up in 1939, when he turned the customary age of 13. But Jerry's bar-mitzvah was a lonely affair, with no guests other than his parents, who stopped by to witness the important ritual before having to quickly leave to catch their next engagement.
Because Jerry was shifted around so much, it was hard for him to keep up with his studies in school. One year, he tried desperately, but just couldn't keep up with the rest of his classmates. On the final day of the school term, the entire class got up and marched down to their new classroom for the following year. Except for poor Jerry, who was held back and had to sit in the same, now empty, classroom alone, knowing that he had failed as a student.
In the tenth grade, Jerry tried to saw through a piece of wood with a nail in it in shop class. He was sent to the principal's office for (albeit accidentally) destroying school property. The principal was told what had happened and commented, "All Jews are stupid." Jerry responded by punching him, knocking out one (or two) of his teeth, and resulting in Jerry's expulsion- and the end of his formal schooling.
One important note: although Jerry's school years may have been rather bleak, at Irvington High School he did serve as a cheerleader. One can only imagine how much fun it must have been to witness a teenage Jerry Lewis cheerleading. One also must assume that this activity must have helped Jerry develop his later onstage energetic comedic character.
Jerry had caught the performing bug from as early as that first performance onstage in the Catskills. In 1938, he had been given a special award for writing, producing, directing and acting in a show. He also often performed with his parents onstage in various venues, also helping with their props.
Hanging around backstage one night, Jerry had his "first encounter" with a woman (a stripper his father made a deal with) at the precocious age of 11. Jerry remembered that "she danced with snakes."
Jerry was always a local "character," both at home and in school. His school nickname was "Id" (short for "idiot"). He would sometimes sneak into houses in the neighborhood and steal pies or fried chicken. At home, "I would dangle from the pipes and act like a monkey," Jerry recalled, "Some people said i needed a keeper. Others said i would get the electric chair."
Now 16 and free of the responsibilities of school, Jerry decided to become a professional performer. He changed is name to "Jerry Lewis," to avoid being confused with either the then-popular comedian Joe E. Lewis or the boxer Joe Louis.
He had, by this time, developed a "record act." In this act, Jerry would make faces and mimic the singer, as a record played in the background. (Record acts were very popular during the World War II years.)
Jerry's first professional booking was in Buffalo, New York, at a seedy strip club. When Jerry started doing his record act, the men in the audience had other things on their minds and started heckling Jerry. "Bring on the broads!" they yelled at Jerry (among other less savory things). Flustered and overwhelmed, Jerry fled off the stage in tears.
He started packing his bags in his dressing room and was ready to blow the joint, when an old veteran performer named Max Coleman saw him. "Aren't you Danny Lewis's son?" he asked, to which Jerry said yes. "Well, you're not acting like it," he said, explaining that a trouper never leaves the stage in the middle of performance, no matter how bad it is going. Jerry mustered up his courage and managed to get through the rest of his Buffalo engagement.
Sometime in the mid-'40's, Jerry tried to enlist in World War II, but was rejected, either for a heart murmur or a perforated ear drum (or possibly both, depending on the source).
In 1944, Jerry met a beautiful brunette singer named Patti Palmer, who was singing with the the Ted Fio Rito band. Desperate to get her attention, Jerry would sometimes, in a restaurant at breakfast, upturn a bowl of oatmeal on his head. "Why did you do that?" Patti asked.
"Because I didn't have Cream of Wheat," Jerry replied.
One day, Patti caught Jerry in her dressing room, hiding behind her wardrobe. Furious, Patti said, "What are you doing here?"
"Peeking," Jerry giggled. Even Patti had to laugh.
Finally, one day Patti found a pair of baby shoes hanging from her dressing room mirror. Attached to them was a note, "I haven't got a nickel, but let's fill these." Jerry and Patti were married on October 3, 1944.
During these early, lean years of their marriage, Jerry would often have to borrow money from Patti, as she was the more successful of the two at the time. Jerry and Patti were to have their first child, Gary, in 1946.
But perhaps the most important event of young Jerry Lewis' life occurred in 1945, when a mutual friend named Sonny King introduced Jerry to a handsome Italian singer named Dean Martin on a street corner in New York. Jerry instantly liked Dean and sometimes would even "clown around" with Dean onstage while he was trying to sing in his act. Within a year, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis would formally team up and become the most popular and financially successful comedy team in the history of show business.
Continue the story of Jerry Lewis with an account of his partnership with Dean Martin.
Also read about Lewis' time as a restaurant owner, his biggest movie, his unreleased film, his TV talk show, his popularity in France, and other facts about Jerry Lewis.