Rags To Riches: How Jerry Lewis Rose To Fame

Danny Levitch and his wife were Russian immigrants, who lived amongst the frantic bustle of New York City’s 16th Street. The year was 1926, and these new Americans had just celebrated the birth of their son Joseph. In a few decades, the world would know this animated boy by another name – Jerry Lewis, the legendary comedian who embodied the fast pace of the city where he was born.
“Danny Lewis” was the stage name of Jerry’s father. A nightclub singer, he fashioned his act after his idol, Al Jolson – an extremely expressive jazz singer who once enjoyed the title of “World’s Greatest Performer”. Alongside his piano-playing wife, Danny would often leave his son for prolonged periods of time to tour the nightclub circuit. With his parents away, Jerry required the care of a full-time guardian – which he found in his grandmother, a supportive and generous woman who resided in Irvington, New York.

Jerry was a lonely and disconnected child. Without close friends, Jerry found solace in the comfort and friendship of his grandmother – and would often pour his energy into entertaining her, with his many imaginative characters.
By the time Jerry had turned five, the world around him was in great flux. The Great Depression had descended upon the American economy, which had a devastating effect on Danny Lewis’ career.  Forced to take work at a summer resort, Jerry was finally given the opportunity he’d always hoped for – to live in the same place as his mother and father.
It wasn’t long after joining his parents that Jerry received his first chance to try his hand at show business. It was after singing a number to a crowd of tourists, that the adolescent took a bow to signal his gratitude for the applause he was receiving. Unfortunately, the poor boy put his foot through a stage light – inspiring an outcry of laughter from the audience. Jerry himself remembers enjoying this response more than the applause, and from that moment onwards the boy wanted nothing more than to entertain the masses.
Jerry’s educational career was short-lived. By the time he was in high school, he found himself in-and-out of trouble regularly. It was during a reprimand from his principal that Jerry was called an anti-Semetic slur – which inspired him to punch his accuser in the mouth, and promptly ended his tenure as a student. Shortly after this confrontation, his grandmother passed away. At fifteen, a very young Jerry Lewis found himself without a home or direction in life. He was going to have to make his own way.
After taking a joe job at a hotel in New York, Jerry began to develop quite a reputation – thanks to his zany antics, which delighted and entertained his co-workers. It was here that Jerry met his soon-to-be-manager, who also worked at the hotel. Together, the pair fled their jobs… and by the age of 16, Jerry was playing every burlesque house on the east coast. Gradually, his reputation amongst different communities grew. Soon, young people, families, and even those in senior’s homes came to know and love the performer known as Jerry Lewis.
It was while living at the Plaza Hotel that Jerry met Dean Martin – a well-known crooner and ladies man, the two were instant friends. Later, when Lewis was appearing at the 500 Club in Atlantic City, he sent for Martin and requested that the two perform together. This would be the beginning of a legendary comedy duo, who consistently packed nightclubs night after night. Their legacy would manifest on television and in films in the years that followed, launching them both to super-stardom.
Josh Byer is a blogger, copywriter and author residing in Vancouver, Canada.
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