So I'm watching "Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis," the documentary of a sort now premiering on Encore about the life and art of the polarizing entertainer, and it dawns on me that America largely missed the 35th anniversary of one of the most famous moments in television history: the live reunion between Jerry Lewis, who was doing his 11th Muscular Dystrophy Telethon that year, and Dean Martin, who had left Lewis's side 20 years earlier.
those of you under 50, stay with me for just a few more moments. The Martin-Lewis reunion may mean nothing to you—especially if aren't a fan of either man or a student of Hollywood or Vegas history. But I'll bet you a bag of donuts that the reunion, orchestrated by Frank Sinatra himself on September 5, 1976, was a big deal to your parents, or to your grandparents, or to your great-grandparents. Go ahead and ask them, you'll see.
It's understandable why America wasn't in the mood to celebrate this anniversary a few months ago. On September 5, 2011, after all, we are all gearing up for a much more grim remembrance. But I think it would be a shame if the entire year passed without so much as a brief tribute to the grand moment at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, on a Sunday, when Dean Martin first walked back onto Jerry Lewis's stage.
And I say all this as a kid too young either to remember Lewis and Martin as a team (they broke up in 1956 after a glorious run) or to link them to the Rat Pack. But in 1976 they were still both a big draw in our house. My father was just a few years younger than Lewis, and was said to look a bit like him, and I remember the feeling back then that when these guys were on the television screen it was more than just a show—it was an event.
I acknowledge that Lewis is a divisive figure, although, like this recent reviewer at The New York Times, I'm not quite sure exactly why. And I know what the other reviewers say about "Method to the Madness." I hope one day that a stronger documentary of Lewis is made, one which answers the many questions this one has left behind. But now is not the time for a debate over Jerry Lewis, his foibles, and his legacy. Now is about September 5, 1976.
Here is the video. Trust me when I tell you that it meant an awful lot then —and no doubt means something still—to tens of millions of Americans who loved laughing to Martin and Lewis and who then were saddened by their long split. Whether you love Lewis, or loathe him, and I sadly concede that there are reasonable people on both side of that divide, you have to concede that this was great television.
Even in this brief clip you can see and feel examples of why Lewis got into so much trouble later and why the dialogue of the Rat Pack did not age well (to put it kindly). But this clip isn't only about Lewis. It's about Martin coming back to him after all those years. It's about all the stunned people in the audience. It's about the Chairman of the Board interceding—everyone acknowledging later, of course, that only Sinatra himself could have pulled it off.
This is what tens of millions of Americans—most now senior citizens—were paying attention to in the late summer of 1976, the year the country turned 200. This is why it is still important to remember these cultural moments as they fade from personal memory. Do yourself a favor this holiday weekend. Put aside your apathy (or worse) toward Lewis. Ask your folks, or your grandparents, about Lewis and Martin and the reunion. And then just sit back and listen.