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September 19, 2014

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Packing his trunk of memories, Jerry Lewis hits the stage at South Point

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Christopher DeVargas

Jerry Lewis poses for a portrait in his Las Vegas home Wednesday, May 8, 2013.

Jerry Lewis at Home in Las Vegas

Jerry Lewis poses for a portrait in his Las Vegas home Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Do you remember?

Jerry Lewis is asking that, two months after his 87th birthday.

Remember Martin & Lewis? The peerless comedy-and-music stage shows that rocked nightclubs across the country for a decade? Remember the timeless movies starring that great tandem? And the great performances after the act split up, “The Nutty Professor” — one of the greatest comedies ever made — and the astonishing dramatic turn opposite Robert De Niro in “The King of Comedy?”

Remember the decades Jerry Lewis spent as the face, spokesman, rudder and engine of the Muscular Dystrophy Association? The annual Labor Day marathons that turned the clock and tote board in an effort that raised more than $2 billion before Lewis and that organization's hierarchy acrimoniously broke ties in 2010?

Remember classic entertainment? Professionally crafted singing, dancing and joke-telling? Remember the days when the names of the stars — George Burns, Jack Benny, Steve & Eydie, The Rat Pack — topped Strip marquees? The days before hotels trumpeted the stars rather than that night’s prime rib special?

Remember the Academy Award he was presented in 2009 for his long history of humanitarian work?

Jerry Lewis remembers. Brother, he remembers it all.

“It’s amazing, the metamorphosis that develops is incredible to understand, but you know when you walk on the stage, you’re walking out there to meet your fans, and even a part of your life,” Lewis says in an interview in his Las Vegas home, slightly hunched and wearing a loose-fitting red golf shirt (always, it’s a red shirt) with his famed “JL” logo stitched to the pocket. “Your inner emotions just take over. When you’re born in a trunk, it’s certainly a natural place to be, you know? I suddenly have recollections of being 7 and 8 years old, where I was with my dad or my mom.

“My God, the stage is the only place I know where to go.”

His laughs and his eyes dart, indicating a mind racing in many directions at once. This is the Jerry Lewis of today, once more a Las Vegas headliner.

Jerry Lewis at the Orleans

Entertainer Jerry Lewis performs at the Orleans Showroom Sunday, November 18, 2012. Launch slideshow »

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At South Point, owned by his good buddy Michael Gaughan, Lewis opens up the trunk of memories of his legendary life and career for three performances set for Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights (tickets are $45, $55 and $65 and available at the South Point website or by calling the hotel box office at 797-8055).

The shows fall into an uncommonly busy stretch of live performances for Lewis. He performed April 4 at the BergenPac Performing Arts Center in Englewood, N.J.; April 5 at Community Theater at Mayo Center for the Performing Arts in Morristown, N.J.; April 6 at The Theater at Westbury in New York; and Saturday at Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma, Wash. He’s been chatting with Gaughan for a year and a half about appearing at South Point, the site of his last appearance as host of the “Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon” in 2010.

Lewis refuses — aggressively — to talk of his departure from MDA. When asked if he would ever be able to talk about his relationship with the organization with any happiness, he says, “No.”

Further MDA questions are met with, “You are digging a hole. It’s so deep, you might never get the shovel out.”

Gotcha.

But Lewis is more forthcoming about his return to South Point.

“I’ve been promising Michael for over a year and a half that I’d be at the South Point,” Lewis says, chuckling. “He’s such a dear man. I’ve had offers from at least a half-dozen places, but I do want to play for Michael.”

On the road, the reception Lewis received was, in his words, “Incredible.”

“I couldn’t talk for the first two minutes,” he says. “I walked out and there was, not applauding, but stamping and screaming and carrying on, and I didn’t know what to do with my body. Where do you stand when all of this is going on? That’s what happened in the four concerts we did.”

Lewis’ description of the show planned for South Point is of a performance similar to his appearance at Orleans Showroom in November, recorded for a PBS special titled, “An Evening With Jerry Lewis: Live From Las Vegas,” which aired in January. Lewis is taking a stroll, gingerly but confidently, through his compelling and legendary life and career.

Lewis is to be backed by either a large band or small orchestra, however you choose to describe about a dozen musicians. He’ll sing, most likely “Somebody” from his film “Cinderfella.” He’ll tell some jokes and recount jaw-dropping stories of his time with “Paul,” how he still refers to Dean Martin. He’ll roll out old film clips capturing his great TV and film roles, and also touching on behind-the-scenes antics with his many co-stars, principally Martin.

“There are some clips I’m working on, a new set, just for the South Point,” Lewis says. “I just love them. You know, I still pick up (Lewis’ book) ‘Dean and Me’ and just open chapter and get pleasure out of seeing what I’ve written. It has nothing to do with ego or vanity; it just brings me together with him.”

Lewis also plans to wade into unpredictable waters with an unscripted Q&A segment, addressing members of the audience directly. How to best describe these segments is to expect anything in Lewis’ give-and-take with his questioners. He’s frequently funny, consistently quick and sometimes brusque in dealing with his fans.

“When you get a question like, ‘Did you like meeting Her Majesty?’ ” Lewis says. “ ‘No, I thought she was a slob.’ I mean, what are you going to say? … The mischief comes into me when I’m doing a Q&A, I’m 9 years old again. I don’t get mad. I do get offended. The thing about the Q&A that I have to fix is, they want to tell me how much they love me, they want to tell me that I’ve been in their lives since they were children. All of that is wonderful, but I say to the audience, ‘If you do that, then we have a love-in for an hour, and we don’t have a lot of fun.

“So, if you can just save your affection for after the show, I’d appreciate it.”

One night on the tour, Lewis spent 75 minutes just on the Q&A segment.

“I did 2 hours and 40 minutes,” he says. “I believe when you go out there, you have a responsibility to deliver. I have old-fashioned thinking when I’m out there.”

Jerry Lewis: Nevada Broadcasters Association Lifetime Achievement Award

Jerry Lewis listens as he is presented with the Nevada Broadcasters Association Lifetime Achievement Award at Red Rock Resort on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011. Launch slideshow »

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Though he still considers himself an active, live performer, Lewis does not attend shows in Las Vegas, as he is very rarely spotted at events around town. His most recent public appearance in Las Vegas was in August 2011, when he accepted the Nevada Broadcasters Association Lifetime Achievement Award at Red Rock Resort. He and his wife, Sam, are usually sacked out by 10 p.m.

“We take care of ourselves as well as we can. I feel good, strong,” Lewis says. But he is still suffering from chronic back pain as a result of an accumulation of pratfalls — and one big fall at the Sands in March 1965 — that have curved his frame like a question mark.

“Fifteen minutes, I’m sitting here and I’m fine until you ask me about my back, then it’s ‘Ouch!’ ” Lewis says. “It’s at the base of my spine, all the way to the back of my head. For 40-somehting years, I’ve been in pain. There are days when I get up to walk and my legs go out from under me and I fall. It happens every now and again, you know, and I just push myself until it happens. But now, when I go onstage and walk out there for 2 hours, I’m fine. ... Adrenaline is so strong that none of us understand it.”

His physical pain notwithstanding, Lewis mentally is as swift as ever. He is characteristically curious asking about the upcoming shows and happenings around town. After being updated on such club openings as Hakkasan Las Vegas at MGM Grand and the new “Michael Jackson One” show at Mandalay Bay, he smiles and jokes, “You don’t mind if I don’t go, do you?”

But he does hold strong opinions about the quality of entertainment in town. He has alternately criticized and, more recently, heaped praise upon Cirque du Soleil productions.

“It’s brilliant. Brilliant,” he says. “It’s for people who come to Vegas from Omaha, for the first time, and they’re looking at the city and looking at the Strip, and in the evening they go to a Cirque show. It’s the cherry on the sundae for them. These are incredible performers, I mean they’re flying at 60, 70 feet, and when they come down, they tap you on the head and say, ‘I hope you are having a wonderful time.’ ”

Beyond this weekend’s shows, Lewis says he is eager to bring a show starring himself and Steve Lawrence to The Smith Center. “We want to work together, at least one gig,” Lewis says. “Just today, Steve was on the phone with me about it.”

Lewis’ stage version of “The Nutty Professor” enjoyed a widely applauded run last year at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville. Lewis has long said that production will play the Marquis Theater on Broadway (where on Sunday, “Jekyll & Hyde” closes), targeting November as the premiere period for the show. Lewis has fond memories of the theater from his days performing in “Damn Yankees” in the mid-1990s.

If and when “The Nutty Professor” tours the U.S., Lewis would love to stage the production in Vegas.

“I’d bring the Broadway production to The Smith Center,” he says. “Absolutely, it would be tremendous.”

Lewis then leans back, settling into his cushy living-room sofa. His eyes flash, and he says, “You know, when you’re born in a trunk, your blood stream is full of confetti.”

He laughs, taken off-guard by his own words, and says, “I’ve never said it that way before. But to walk out on the stage and to be accepted before you do anything is a wonderful feeling. I never get tired of it, ever.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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