The $4 Interview With Doomsayer Jerry Lewis

I had been concerned that, after all the controversy and hullabaloo surrounding my efforts to land a tete-a-tete with Jerry Lewis, the chat could never possibly live up to the chase. I also was nervous, given what so many of my fellow journalists had privately told me about Lewis’ legendary temper; that given all the sand I’d kicked up in the past week, I was in for a licking.

Instead, what I got was one of the most refreshingly honest -- if unlikely and depressing -- commentaries on what Vegas is becoming that I’ve heard from the many old-timers I’ve interviewed over the years.

More on that in a moment. But here’s the thumbnail on that controversy: With the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon coming up on Labor Day, I wanted to interview Jerry Lewis. I planned to do a piece for a major national magazine, write here in this column a bit and air the audio on my podcast, ”The Strip.” So I emailed his Web site and got a strange response from one Rick Saphire telling me that for an interview of broad nature, he could arrange it for “a sizeable fee.” Baffled, I asked how much. $20,000, I was told. Amazed, I asked if anyone actually pays that and was told yes but only the “heavy hitters.” I posted all of this on the blog for “The Strip” podcast and the story went national. Then an MDA spokesman called, told me that Mr. Saphire had been out of place and now is out of work with Lewis, and when did I want to meet Mr. Lewis?

On Wednesday, then, I was at the South Point, home of the 42nd Telethon, where I was led through a huge room where MDA folks were getting everything ready. I sat down at a corner desk in this wide-open room and waited until, through a door nearby, Lewis himself entered on a motorized scooter bellowing silly insults at various staffers. He was in a terrific mood and spoke excitedly about the upcoming show and about how amazed he is that these events have raised so much money.

Unlike my colleagues’ past experiences, he remained pleasant throughout my half-hour chat, even allowing me extra questions after deciding my time was up.

No, he didn’t turn his ire -- not on me, anyway. He was too busy slamming what’s become of Las Vegas in the past couple of decades.

It started out, reasonably enough, with what sounded like a platitude I’d heard a million times, the notion that things were better “when the mob ran Vegas.” I chalked it up to nostalgia until Lewis really got on a roll.

Lewis: When the mob ran this town, we had Las Vegas. When the corporates came in, we have Huckleberry Finn Farms.

Friess: You don’t like Vegas as it is now.

Lewis: Theatrically? No. It’s a very bad Coney Island. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what it is. A bad Coney Island. It’s carnival. It’s cotton candy and hookers standing on the street. Come on!

Friess: So you’re not a fan of the Cirque du Soleil shows or the Broadway shows they’ve brought here?

Lewis: Those are wonderful, but you can’t polish a turd. I don’t care who you talk to, it’s impossible to polish a turd! If you have a bad idea, you think it’s going to be fine when you bring in a new architect and you make the buildings prettier? The creepy rooms are still crummy. But you put a new façade on your hotel and that’s class? Come on!

Lewis was just warming up, but this struck me as different than the nostalgia Mathis, Minnelli, Rickles and Anka spoke with of the olden days when I interviewed them for “The Strip.”

In case I was mistaken, though, Lewis took away the guesswork with this salvo: “They (casino owners) will suffocate one another to a degree that 20 years from today they will not be in business. I’m glad I’m not going to be here to see it.”

Yes, folks, he was point-blank stating that the overbuilding of hotel inventory in Vegas will lead to our collapse. It’s not new, of course. As I wrote last week, Life Magazine asked if the Vegas boom was overextended back in 1955.

Is he right? I tend to doubt it myself. And some of what he said about today’s Las Vegas was plain incorrect. He referred, for instance, to paying $25 for parking on the Strip, the New York-New York being up against the Luxor and the Harrah’s having a piece of it inside the Paris. Nobody pays for parking on the Strip and those two pairs of hotels aren’t even in the same blocks with one another.

Still, I sure got my money’s worth. All $4, the amount I tipped the valet. Well, that and the proceeds from this column, which I intend to donate to the MDA. And just to keep you all in some suspense, you’ll have to wait until next week at TheStripPodcast.Com to hear some fun Dean Martin tales and to hear which current Vegas act Lewis called a “a true old-school performer.”

You might just say, to quote ol’ Jerry, “Come on!”

Steve Friess is a Vegas-based writer who contributes regularly to Newsweek, USA Today, The New York Times, Vegas and many others. Contact him at [email protected]

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