9/26/12 - growing up lonely

In today's excerpt - Jerry Lewis, the manic comedian who with his partner and later on his own became the number one box office attraction in the world, was born to often-absent vaudeville parents and grew up lonely, craving their attention:

"Danny Levitch was going to be the next Al Jolson. But things had not worked out that way.

"Born on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1902, he had grown up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, working in his father's wine cellar. All he wanted, like that rabbi's blackfaced son, was to rock-a-bye the world with a Dixie melody. Like Jolson, he changed his name; and, as Danny Lewis, he found work singing. By the time he was twenty, and fame and glory were not forthcoming, he took a job as a song-plugger for the Manhattan publishing company of Fred Fisher, Inc.

"The S. S. Kresge five-and-dime store on Market Street in New­ark was among the places where Danny was sent to peddle Fisher's sheet music. There was a nineteen-year-old salesgirl there named Rachel Brodsky, whose job it was to demonstrate songs on the piano for customers. Like him, Rae was the child of Russian immigrants. He placed Fisher's "They Go Wild, Simply Wild over Me" in the stand before her, then sang into her eyes as she played along. What woman could resist? They married in January 1925, after a court­ship of nearly two years. Danny pursued his singing career, and he was performing at the Empire Theatre in Newark fourteen months later, on March 16, 1926, when their only child, a son they named for Rae's father, was born in that city.

"With Rae as his rehearsal pianist, Danny Lewis toured the bur­lesque circuit as a singer and baggy-pants comic. Rae had her own agent, and played piano in cocktail lounges around town. In the summer months, they were familiar figures at the resort hotels of the Catskill Mountains area in Sullivan County, New York -- the Presi­dent Hotel on Swan Lake, Grossinger's and Young's Gap in Liberty, the Evans in Loch Sheldrake, and others that comprised what came to be known as the borscht circuit. He was a regular at the Presi­dent, where he sang, did comedy, and served as master of ceremo­nies; and it was at the President, at a Firemen's Association benefit in the summer of 1932, that six-year-old Joey Levitch made his debut, singing "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" to his mother's accompaniment. ...

"Little Joey Levitch ... became a convoluted, colicky knot of clinical frays. His earliest childhood was one beset by fears of abandonment. His parents were often away. As he was passed from one relative to another, always seem­ing to come back to his grandmother Sarah Brodsky, those fears grew worse.

" 'All my life, I've been afraid of being alone,' he would say. 'Grandma Sarah was the only one who understood my loneliness.' He felt that if his parents loved him, if they wanted him, they would not leave him so. He remembered running through Irvington one night as a child, seeking his mother in a desperate panic, overcome with the thought that she did not love him and might never return. He found her playing piano in a bar. 'I got scared,' he cried as she took him home. That panic returned to him in nightmares for de­cades to come. Loved-starved and insecure, he craved the mother's-milk of attention and would do anything he could to get it. ...

"[Joey embarked on his own early career as a vaudeville comedian], His father long had told him not to make the same mistake that he had made, had told him to get an education and forget about being a joker. But Joey wanted what he wanted. He quit school at sixteen. [An over-the-hill comic named] Irving Kaye, through a friend who packaged shows for the Loew's circuit in New Jersey, got him an audition. Hired for a six-week run through Jersey at twenty bucks a night, he adopted the stage name his father had taken, and went from Joey to Jerry to avoid confusion with the comedian Joe E. Lewis."


Nick Tosches


Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams


Dell Publishing a division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 1992 by Nick Tosches, Inc.


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