Happy Labor Day. I'm a union member of Actors Equity Association (AEA), Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (the latter now merged as one union, SAG-AFTRA, and of which I'm honored and privileged to serve as First Vice President of the Twin Cities Local). I joined all of them in 1953 as a child actor in New York City. This day means more to me, and other AFL-CIO-affiliated union members, than just being another holiday. Obviously, it's a day set aside to pay tribute to many in this country's work force.
Labor Day also used to mean, to me and many others, a chance to see this country's, and this world's, most excellent talents performing on Jerry Lewis's MDA Labor Day Telethons, which became a "tradition", raising over two-billion dollars throughout those almost 60 years with Jerry at the helm. Unfortunately, Jerry is no longer the host of the MDA fundraisers he created six decades ago this year, having "resigned" that position May 11, 2011. The fundraising began on a local New York City television station in 1952 and evolved into what it became until 2010, from a few hours, originally, to 24 hours, to 21-1/2 hours, then to what it will be tonight, i.e., three hours in prime time, and not including Jerry's name.
"Antenna TV" is having a Jerry Lewis film marathon today, featuring some of Jerry's most iconic films, all day and evening. Bravo and brava to those who made that decision.
Jerry and the late Dean Martin were co-hosts of the original telethons until they split as a team. One of my strongest lifetime mentors and friends, a fellow Pittsburgh native, Producer-Director Bob Finkel (who I just learned via the Internet today passed away this past April 30th at the age of 94), was the director of Dean and Jerry's COLGATE COMEDY HOUR on NBC-TV in the 1950s. He often told me a few hilarious anecdotes about those halcyon days with Dean and Jerry, when television was genuinely fun, especially with that iconic duo. Bob later became my boss in 1956 and 1957 when he was producing THE PERRY COMO SHOW, allowing me the privilege to become one of THE RAY CHARLES SINGERS, Perry's "backup" singers, on that show, and on his recordings. "Our" Ray Charles (nee Chuck Offenberg), with whom I still keep in touch, was the "other" Ray Charles, as he puts it, and still directs the choral arrangements at The Kennedy Center Honors each year. Ray is still going strong at age 93.
Jerry and I shared the same agent for several years. The agent's name was Abner J. (Abby) Greshler, whose company, Diamond Artists, Ltd., was based in The Luckman Building on Sunset Boulevard, just east of the Beverly Hills city limits. The reason Abby's name is significant is he was the one who "discovered" Dean and Jerry performing individually in Atlantic City and felt they'd be a very successful comedy and song team. He brought them together as a team. Abby, of course, knew about what he was talking. He was their agent all the years Dean and Jerry were together. Abby also handled, among others, Tony Randall, my ultimate 50-year friend and mentor (from our MISTER PEEPERS acting days until his death), which is how I "landed" Abby as my agent, via Tony's recommendation to Abby. The "business", as it's known, is a "friends" business, for the most part. At least it used to be, when one friend doing better than the other would give a boost to those less fortunate in their careers. Abby wound up co-owning (with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman) THE ODD COUPLE television series, allowing Abby to die owning a bank in Beverly Hills with assets of over 1.5 billion dollars. "Felix and Oscar" also fared very well from the proceeds of the series.
Back to Jerry: Jerry and I met each other, on and off, from the 1950s. Then, when he was appearing at the now defunct Carlton Showroom in Bloomington in the early 1980s, I was assigned to interview him during my tenure as Entertainment Editor at Channel 11. We had a good interview. Afterward, I wrote Jerry a thank you letter about the interview, and how some of what he said was personally inspirational to me. I didn't hear back from him. Then, over a year later, I was at home one Sunday afternoon when I got a call from Channel 11's control room. The person at the other end was one of my co-workers, who said, "Jerry Lewis just called here for you and wants you to call him at home in Las Vegas: The number is 702-384-1----. (last three numbers omitted for his privacy, of course. He still has the same number.)". I wondered why he might be asking me to call him, but I thought it might be about my letter to him, sent over a year before. When I called, he said, "Hiya, Barry". I responded and asked to what I owed the honor of his wanting me to call. He said, "Well, we were just going over tapes of our tour last year, and your letter fell out of the box continaing our interview. I swear to you I have never seen this letter until today, and I just wanted you to know I would never ignore such a beautiful letter". I was floored he would take the time to tell me that. I thanked him. We exchanged some more pleasantires. Then he asked how I was doing. I said, "Well, sometimes not so well". He said he was sorry to learn that, but then added, verbatim, "Well, now you have my home phone number, so when you're feeling low, just call me, and we'll pump each other up." I thanked him, profusely. In subsequent years, we talked occasionally, and when in Las Vegas, I visited with him briefly a few times at a club to which he goes every day to work out. For all his physical problems in recent years, he is as strong and fit-looking as anyone half his age. His heart and genuine humanity are also strong and fit, and to be a recipient of those kindnesses will always be among my most treasured memories.
Blessings to Jerry, and to those who should still, and always, in my opinion, be called "Jerry's Kids".
Thanks for taking the time to read these pieces, and for also viewing my webcasts entitled A SENIOR MOMENT at www.startribune.com/video, the subject for which changes every Monday. Thanks also to Sea Shark and other readers of these blogs for their very kind frequent comments and footnote contributions to and about these blogs.