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October 20, 2014

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A pair of 8s is a winning hand for Jerry Lewis

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Christopher DeVargas

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

Updated Friday, May 30, 2014 | 2:34 p.m.

He keeps returning to that number. Eighty-eight. The number of keys on a piano, as it turns out. The double-snowman. It would be a hard 16 on a craps table, if the dice had more sides.

“I just passed 88,” Jerry Lewis says, as if looking back at a car he’s left in the dust. “That’s a pretty good number.”

In his hands, it is. Lewis wears 88 quite well, remaining as kinetic as ever and enlivened during an hourlong chat this week in his Las Vegas home. He’s swift with responses, flying from fury to funny in a single sentence. He talks glowingly of his photo exhibit “Painted Pictures,” which runs through Sept. 27 at UNLV’s Barrick Museum. The exhibit is of Lewis-photographed cityscapes taken from the 1950s through the 1970s, the focus being the streaky, manipulated images of the Strip from those days.

“It’s a marvelous exhibit,” he says. “You should get your (butt) down there and see it.”

The exhibit runs in conjunction with a film series of Lewis’ movies from that period. Through Wednesday, it’s “The Patsy,” followed by “Who’s Minding the Store?” The primary sponsor of the project is South Point owner Michael Gaughan, who has been a close friend of Lewis’ for decades. The South Point was where Lewis hosted what was to be his final MDA Labor Day Telethon, in 2010, and the hotel’s showroom has served as his most recent Las Vegas performance venue. Lewis is back this weekend, for performances at 7:30 p.m. today, Saturday and Sunday (call the hotel at 702-797-8055 from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. today and Saturday, and noon-8 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $45, $50 and $55, absent fees).

On this day, Lewis is as energetic as ever, and it is clear his mind is careening in many directions at once. Lewis has said his mind works on several levels concurrently; he’ll be talking about the here and now but also thinking about an edit he’ll be making in a few hours and the phone calls he needs to return before nightfall.

He would have it no other way.

“I’m the luckiest Jew in the world, to be able to do what I’m still able to do,” he says, laughing. “Look what God has given me. I’m not homeless. I’m not in need of surgery. I have most of my functions in order. I don’t want to ask for any more.”

More highlights from the conversation:

The last time you played South Point, it was just you onstage introducing your rare home movies and film and TV clips, then a Q&A with the audience. Is that what we’re going to see this weekend?

Yes, and what’s funny is the Q&A I do is starting to run 30 minutes. It’s great fun because the audience is testing my immediate brain. Sometimes it is too loving — people telling me that they were 8 and 9 years old when I came into their lives. I say, “Well, Jesus, you’ve had long enough to rehearse!” It’s a beautiful thing to see, when you’re sitting there with 400 people, but sometimes it’s, “Enough kissing and hugging! Let’s get to something silly.”

Do you have an appreciation of what it is like for someone to walk up to that microphone and ask you a question?

Well, sure. They’re very nervous. They don’t want to say the wrong thing. But they do want to make contact so they can say later that they did make contact.

I want to ask you about your photos. They are all abstract, cityscapes and landscapes. In your live show, you use a lot of footage of you and Dean and other friends taken behind the scenes, beautiful color film clips. Did you consider including any of those types of images in the exhibit?

No. A company in Paris called Fnac, the equivalent in France of Kodak here in the states, did this exhibit. They displayed a whole wall of my pictures, every wall in Fnac had my photos, like 16-by-10 feet. It ran for four months and was very successful.

Have you ever taken a photograph with a phone?

Of a phone?

With a phone. You know, using a smartphone to snap a picture.

Oh (laughs), no. I only use the phone as a phone.

Whenever I’ve had a photographer with me, you’ve asked about his or her technical expertise. No matter where it is, you’ve been curious about the photographer’s technique and equipment.

Oh, yeah. There are probably a couple dozen important directors in Hollywood that you never see without a camera. I mean, I’ve always got one at the left of my arm. Every room you go to you will see one. Or two, or three. Any good director shoots pictures. He just does. When I started to be a motion picture director, one of the things that Joe Mankiewicz said to me is, “Get a still camera and don’t let anyone take it away from you.”

Between this weekend and then, any projects or performances coming up that you want to talk about?

I’m doing eight concerts from mid-September until the end of October. Then I go into the Paramount Theatre in Times Square and do four days there. I have dates in Lakeland, Fla.; Chicago; Detroit; St. Louis; Denver; Indianapolis; Maine. ... I don’t know what the (heck) I’m doing up there.

In these shows, when you’re in front of a relatively small audience, like 400 people at the South Point, it’s still apparent you are getting a lot of fulfillment out of being onstage.

The thrill that I get walking out onstage on Friday night is no different than when I walked out onstage when I was 9. No difference. You’re walking out to a bunch of people who are paying to see you, who remind you of your work. That audience is there to tell you that you can do more. They come because they want to see you, and it’s a thrill standing and waiting to be introduced. I never, ever lost that. I still have the belly jumps, when you get nervous in here (points at his stomach).

Even when you’re performing 83 years, as I have, that doesn’t go away.

Do you still get nostalgic when you’re watching yourself in these clips, while you’re onstage?

Of course. I get nostalgic watching me with my partner (Dean Martin), and I’ve been working on some clips for this new show and (laughs) — I didn’t get one clip finished because I was laughing so much. I have to go back this afternoon now and finish the editing. But I watch it when it’s on the screen. I think I’m having the best time of anyone. I’ve been told that it looks like I am having more fun than anyone in the room. I like knowing that.

You’ve been spotted at Pia Zadora’s show at Piero’s awhile back. Have you seen any other shows in Las Vegas recently?

Not really. I took my children to see the Michael Jackson Cirque du Soleil show (“One,” at Mandalay Bay). I took my wife to see “Love” at the Mirage. It’s all the same show, you know. Different acrobats. What they do is great, but it is the same show. You know what bothers me is when I see a marquee announcing a steak dinner instead of an entertainer.

The classic complaint about Cirque du Soleil is that the brand has overtaken traditional star headliners on the Strip. We now have Cirque shows in the same prominence as Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Martin & Lewis, Elvis, those types of superstars.

We do have Celine, Elton, Shania, those (at Caesars Palace), and they are all fine performers. But every marquee should have a name on it. I come from a time when it was Sinatra, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, going way back, and yes, Martin & Lewis. It is hard for me to watch what has happened to entertainment, and what passes for entertainment, today.

It might be that there are not many around who are on the level of Frank Sinatra. You’re one of the few who is still around who was a star when he was a star.

You know what scares me? I have every phone number I’ve ever heard in my life in my organizers. I have three of them. I looked through them the other day to get a number, and there were 39 names of dead people. I’m not going to take them out because they were friends of mine. I keep them. But when I decided to count them ... Jesus. There’s nobody left.

You’re still standing, though. You were onstage on your 88th birthday, in La Mirada, Calif., right?

Yep! Amazing.

And you are still booked through this year.

My dad told me if I took care of myself, I’d go to 58 and 60 years old as a performer. Sixty years old? I was 16 when he told me that. And as I got older, I thought, “I’m not going to quit at age 58, for Christ’s sake!

How are you feeling, physically, right now?

Great. Oh yeah. I have a very simple way it works for me. I get up in the morning, stretch my arms and say, “Thanks for another day!” That’s how I start. I spend the day writing, starting at 6:30 in the morning. I will write for three or four hours and put it down by noon. Then I will get on with my work.

You keep yourself in good condition? You’re still exercising?

Yes. I eat very, very well. Sam (Lewis’ wife) takes infinitely good care of me. I take my medicine faithfully. I do everything I am supposed to do, and I watch my intake of food. I do my exercises; I have a wonderful physical therapist who works with me three times a week in the exercise room. I’ve got my bike, my machines. I try to stay off a couple of the machines that make me too (expletive) tired. But I work with him. I don’t eat hot dogs anymore (laughs). I don’t know if that will give me additional life, but I’m 88 and nobody tells me I look 88. That means I’m doing something right.

When did you start to accept that you can’t be the same Jerry Lewis that you were generations ago?

At 80-ish, I started to feel a little less rambunctious and watching what I was doing a little more closely. For example, my legs started to go about a year ago, and you have to accept that. I looked in the mirror after getting out of the shower one morning, and I said to Sam, looking at myself in the full-length mirror, and I thought, “I’ve used all of this for 88 years. It’s going to break down.” My eyes, I have to get a little squinty. I can’t hear as well as I’d like to. All the 88-year-old stuff is coming, but it’s not bothering me.

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

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