The following is adapted from a column written by At The Shore Entertainment Writer David J. Spatz and published Dec. 27, 1995, after the death of Dean Martin.
It happened on a warm summer evening in Atlantic City’s flagship casino showroom in 1980, but it could have just as easily been 30 years earlier.
Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin had teamed up for the first time in six years, and the post-show crowd of well-wishers who packed a dressing room at Resorts International didn’t want the fun to end.
And seated in the middle, beaming like a proud father, was Paul (Skinny) D’Amato, the legendary Atlantic City nightclub operator who first thought to team Martin, a suave crooner, with a tumbling, tummler comic named Jerry Lewis.
Lewis, who died Sunday of natural causes in Las Vegas at age 91, was just 20 when D’Amato — who had already booked him as a $150-a-week house comic — hired Martin to be the featured singer on the bill at the old 500 Club.
“He must have felt sorry for one of us, but I’m not sure which one it was,” Martin quipped in that boozy, breezy voice familiar to millions of fans.
It had been nearly 25 years since the partnership broke up, and not on the most pleasant of terms. But it was still apparent Martin felt that Lewis was in some way responsible for his success.
“Probably the two best things that ever happened to me in this business was meeting Jerry Lewis and then leaving (Lewis),” Martin reflected that night at Resorts.
D’Amato, who had been mostly silent while Martin waxed nostalgic, jumped in and explained how Martin and Lewis got together that night in July 1946.
“There are so many stories about how it happened, that Dean felt sorry for Jerry and allowed him to interrupt his act so he could get his laughs, but that isn’t the way I remember it,” said D’Amato, who died in 1984.
D’Amato had hired Lewis as a pantomime act. Martin followed him three weeks later as the singing star of the summer show at the 500 Club, which was on Missouri Avenue at the site of the former Trump Plaza parking garage. Martin said he knew Lewis casually from working the nightclub circuit, but the two had never worked together.
“Jerry opened the show, then Dean would come on and sing,” the club owner recalled. “Then one night, Jerry decided to have some fun and break in on (Martin’s) act. He ran across the stage like some sort of a crazy waiter, breaking dishes and clowning around while Dean tried to sing.”
“It really broke me up, “ Martin interjected. “It was funny stuff, and the audience started to go crazy. Then one night I dumped a pitcher of water on (Lewis’) head and Jerry went into this monkey bit. But I don’t think any of us realized that anything would come of it after (the engagement ended).”
Gradually, without ever rehearsing any of their bits, the two entertainers spent more time on stage together. Martin began singing less and evolved into playing straight man for Lewis’ shenanigans.
“By the end of the summer, nobody wanted them to leave,” D’Amato said. “When they weren’t (working), during the day they’d go down to the beach and act like a bunch of nuts and people would end up coming to see the shows.”
Martin admitted the act was about as bizarre and off-the-wall as anything going.
“It was a whole different time, and we were getting away with murder,” he said. One night between shows at the 500 Club, he recalled, he and Lewis stripped down to their shorts and chased each other through the club.
“Yeah, you almost got me closed down,” D’Amato said with a laugh.
“Nah, pal, we were just breaking it in there,” Martin shot back. “A few weeks later we did it on the dance floor at the Copacabana (in New York).”