Monday, Sept. 7, 2009 | 4:49 p.m.
For the last number, Jerry Lewis wants the lights dimmed.
The showroom is too bright, he says, the glare from over the audience painful to his “new eyes,” which recently underwent cataract surgery so the legendary entertainer again sees the world as a 9-year-old child.
The hushed room darkens as Lewis straightens himself on a lonely black bar stool and peers into the camera, where a TelePrompTer beams the lyrics to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic from “Carousel,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
It’s one last song to finish one more show, the 44th Annual Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. Behind Lewis, over his right shoulder, there is a large board boasting a big number: $60,481,231, the amount raised during this year’s telethon. That is less than what was raised last year by some $5 million, but it’s still $60 million more for treatment and research in Lewis’ nearly life-long fight against muscular dystrophy.
All that is left is the tune to send this audience home.
“When you walk through a storm, keep your head up high, and don’t be afraid of the dark …” he sings to the few hundred in the showrooms and millions worldwide. His face seems to reflect pain, but it’s difficult to say what sort of pain it would be, whether it’s physical or emotional. The 2009 telethon has not been Lewis’ finest hour, not by any measure, but no one honestly expected it would be. To provide a straight review of his performance would miss the point entirely. This year’s telethon was more a study in the resilience of Jerry Lewis, as the unfathomably driven icon battled through hour after hour just to reach the telethon’s final tally. It has clearly been a struggle. In the final hour, he’s been wheeled around the stage in a desk chair. Moments before the final song, an oxygen tank has been rolled out to Lewis onstage, an effort to give him one more gulp of nourishing air to close the show properly.
His tuxedo tie discarded, the shirt open and sweat beading down his chest, Lewis finds his voice.
“At the end of the storm, there is a golden sky …”
The mic in his right hand wavers. His left hand goes to his forehead. His eyes glisten with tears.
“Walk on through the rain. Walk on through the wind,” he sings, strongly but haltingly. “… walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone. You’ll never walk alone.”
As the orchestra plays out the tune, the crowd rises, and the star says simply, “Thank you all. God bless you. Goodnight.” With that, he strides off slowly, disappearing behind the famed tote board.
The true greats depart the stage on their own terms, the opinions and judgments of outsiders be damned. Whether today was the last show for Jerry Lewis can’t be known. But it can be said that when he walks away, it will be his way, through the storm, never alone.
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