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November 27, 2014

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A little poignance, a lot of laughter as Jerry Lewis preps for MDA Telethon

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Mona Shield Payne/Special to the Sun

Jerry Lewis breaks down in tears while listening to music played by his orchestra band during rehearsal for the 45th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon Sunday night at the South Point. This year’s telethon hopes to raise $70 million to surpass 2009’s earnings of $60 million in the fight against muscular dystrophy.

Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon Preparations

Jerry Lewis shoots a photo of his band to determine the height of their platforms during rehearsal for the 45th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon Sunday night at the South Point.  This year's telethon hopes to raise $70 million to surpass 2009's earnings of $60 million in the fight against muscular dystrophy. Launch slideshow »
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Jerry Lewis begs his band to play a humorous melody for him comprised of random notes during rehearsal for the 45th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon Sunday night at the South Point. This year's telethon hopes to raise $70 million to surpass 2009's earnings of $60 million in the fight against muscular dystrophy.

Click to enlarge photo

Jerry Lewis' lyrics book and an article he found funny is shown on his music stand during rehearsal for the 45th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon Sunday night at the South Point. This year's telethon hopes to raise $70 million to surpass 2009's earnings of $60 million in the fight against muscular dystrophy.

Click to enlarge photo

Danielle Lewis, 18, gives her dad, Jerry Lewis, a kiss during rehearsal for the 45th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon Sunday night at the South Point. This year's telethon hopes to raise $70 million to surpass 2009's earnings of $60 million in the fight against muscular dystrophy.

Click to enlarge photo

Members of Jerry Lewis' band, from right, Sal Lozano, Gene Cipriano and Bob Sheppard, crack up laughing at Jerry Lewis' jokes during rehearsal for the 45th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon Sunday night at the South Point. This year's telethon hopes to raise $70 million to surpass 2009's earnings of $60 million in the fight against muscular dystrophy.

The song is “Dormi, Dormi, Dormi,” and the 35-piece orchestra is playing it beautifully. This is a mere rehearsal, the fine-tuning process, but you almost want the music to be halted, bottled and preserved for tonight’s big show.

It would be a shame to waste this soaring rendition.

The man in the conductor’s chair seems to agree. Seated at the front of the orchestra, Jerry Lewis is quietly listening, watching the song’s lyrics drip slowly down a nearby video monitor. It’s a tune he knows so well, a beautiful song he performed with Salvatore Baccalone in the 1958 film “Rock-A-Bye Baby.”

The music washes over Lewis, and within moments, so do his emotions.

The entertainment legend is overcome. He covers his face with his hand, then drops his head, nearly slipping off his seat. A few of the musicians stop performing, as everyone in the South Point showroom, a temporary venue built for this weekend’s “MDA Labor Day Telethon,” fixes their gazes upon the great entertainer.

What is happening? A voice of reason cuts through the concern.

“He’s OK, he’s OK,” says Claudia Marghilano, for years Lewis’ manager and an official for this year’s telethon. He is OK, recovering after several uneasy moments.

Debbie Williams, the show’s lead stage director who has worked with Lewis for 24 years, looks on. Her eyes are watery, too.

“He has a long history with that song,” she says. The cascading emotions might also have been prompted by Lewis’ 18-year-old daughter Dani, who moments earlier turned up at the rehearsal to hug her father and was seated just a few feet away.

Whichever, the song’s beauty, and the poignant response of the 84-year-old Lewis, was just one of many remarkable moments during this morning’s two-hour rehearsal, leading up to the start of today’s telethon coverage beginning at 6 p.m. on KTNV Channel 13 (the show also will stream live at mda.org. The show wraps at 3:30 p.m. Monday, with Lewis onstage from 6 to 11 p.m. today and again at 1 to 3:30 p.m. Monday.

As those who have worked with him for years often note, Lewis is a man of passion, revealing his emotions without pause or warning. One moment he is fired up about a faulty mic -– last year he says rendered four inoperable after being tossed on the floor -– the next, he his playfully jabbing at a sax player about his performance.

“I want you to play C, you to play D-minus, you to play E-flat,” he says, working his way around the musicians, setting up the shot at the targeted sax man, Gene Cipriano, who has performed for Lewis for 20 years. “And you! You, play nothing!”

The orchestra busts up, then Lewis asks a nearby photographer, “Get a picture of him! Real close! I need a new dartboard!” With that, the bassist plays a comedic, up-and-down note.

Later, Lewis turns back to Cipriano. “Remember the year we had the guy who sang with his hands?” Lewis asks, clasping his hands together and squeezing out a hint of a tune. “Laa-dee-dah! Laa-dee-dah! Remember that? And you said, ‘I wonder who that guy’s role model is!’ God, that was funny. I quoted it for years!” Cipriano’s face alights with laughter.

Lewis covers every corner in the two hours. Williams remains amazed at his attention to his seemingly boundless work ethic and his strident attention to detail. “He’s a legend, an absolute legend, who has been a rock star for generations, and he’s still working on the details,” says Williams, who also works on the production teams for “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” “He refers to every crew member by name, and that is rare in this business today.”

So when Lewis calls out to music director “Lee,” it’s the aptly named Lee Musiker. Not that it’s always a treat for Jerry Lewis to be calling you out by name.

“Lee!” he shouts. “I can’t have you wearing a double headset. I’m trying to (talk) to you, and I have to yell 71 times! I need to be able to get to you without having to yell over and over!”

In discussion with Musiker, Lewis presses on, “Nobody is going to tell me what my eyes can’t see! I can’t see the trombones! That is the problem!”

Musiker, the best of the best among music directors who has performed with the New York Philharmonic, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, New York Pops, Boston Pops, Hollywood Bowl and the London Symphony Orchestra, simply nods along.

“You know what the problem is?” Lewis continues, and you feel there is a joke on delivery. “We’re making the atom bomb! That’s what we’re doing!”

“What if it fails to go off?” Musiker asks.

“It reminds me of what Lewis Black said,” Lewis says, his mind darting to a favorite stand-up comic. “What kind of world are we living in if we tell our kids that, in the event of a thermonuclear attack, to crouch under a wooden desk!”

From trombone placement to nuclear Armageddon in less than 30 seconds. This is why you need to be on your toes to work with Lewis. He speaks to the guys in the orchestra seated at his right, the reed section, and talks of a particularly arduous stretch in which he worked 11 straight days and needed 11 hours of unbroken sleep.

“I woke up and I felt like I was hung over!” he says. “I should have drank a bottle of tequila -- I would have been better off.” Sax player Bob Shepherd draws more laughter with “we can arrange for that.”

There is a documentary crew tailing Lewis, by the way, led by Gregg Barson, the same filmmaker who chronicled Phyllis Diller several years ago as she moved toward retirement. Barson’s crew is planning to have its work ready by the spring. It has been a six-year process to persuade Lewis, who says he’s had 13 such offers, to sign off on the project and tolerate the omnipresent film crew at this year’s telethon. As Barson says, even phone conversations with Lewis are worth recording because he invariably launches into his stand-up act.

He’s the showman, always, even when performing for a few dozen people. One of the men in the orchestra tells Lewis the musicians would play better if they were allowed a “pee break.”

“I’ve been peeing for 10 minutes!” Lewis fires back. More laughs ripple through the showroom.

But it is nearly over, this freewheeling session. Lewis still has to run through the show’s closing number, the unfailingly touching Rodgers & Hammerstein classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It’s the song for which he dimmed the showroom lights to close the telethon a year ago.

Will there be more tears?

He sings, “When you walk through a storm, keep your head up high, and don’t be afraid of the ... drak.”

Drak? What?

Lewis laughs and points to the monitor. “It says ‘drak’ there!” It sure does, and Lewis sang the typo. “I know the words! Did you think I wasn’t paying attention?”

Can’t imagine anyone was thinking that. As Williams says, “To work with Jerry Lewis, you have got to have a sense of humor.” And always pay attention. You never know what you’ll miss.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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