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December 21, 2014

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At age 87, the legendary Jerry Lewis still knows how to entertain an audience

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Christopher DeVargas

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

Jerry Lewis at 2013 Cannes Film Festival

Jerry Lewis promotes his new film Launch slideshow »

Jerry Lewis at Home in Las Vegas

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

Jerry Lewis at the Orleans

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

The eyes still dance, the voice booms and the hands are quick to snare the little Chihuahua Paulie (named for Dean Paul Martin) as the pooch races across his lap. Jerry Lewis seems remarkably unchanged in what he calls “the autumn of my life.”

His hair is thick and shows the fine grooves of a comb. The shirt is a favorite of his: short-sleeved, three buttons, bright red with a white “JL” stitched into the pocket. The velvet-like slippers, decorated with the comedy and drama masks. Black pajama-type pants, fitting loose as Lewis is a thin (and, as he notes, “shrinking”) physical presence.

Lewis does allows for his age, saying as he laughs, “When you get to be 87, you start to forget all the little words you used all your life. That is the truth, my friend.”

But Lewis well remembers how to entertain an audience and will amble to the stage once more at South Point Showroom for a single performance Thursday at 7:30 (tickets are $45, $50 and $55; call 702-797-8055 or click on SouthPointCasino.com for information).

The show will be simply Lewis, seated in a director’s chair, introducing a series of film and TV clips from his unparalleled entertainment career.

Some of the highlights of our latest chat at his Las Vegas home on Tuesday afternoon:

He does find some female comics funny:

Over the years, Lewis has fired some harsh criticisms of comediennes. During the Cannes Film Festival this year, in an open forum with the media when he was being honored at the release of his new film “Max Rose,” he was asked for his favorite female comics. He joked, “Cary Grant and Burt Reynolds,” then said, “I don’t have any,” and added, ““I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator.”

But to understand how Lewis answers such questions, it’s helpful to know his mind rapidly boomerangs from thought to thought, and his opinions evolve. Ask again, and he says:

“I saw Carol Burnett two weeks ago at the Smith Center, and she’s a funny, funny lady. Phyllis (Diller) was very funny, too. And Totie Fields. There are a half-dozen brilliant women comediennes.

… I have said before that when I see a woman, I see that she can give birth, and that is a miracle. Watching her onstage, to see a woman do this (mimes the “fart noise” and “Heil Hitler” arm motions), is no big deal … but Carol, Totie, Phyllis, they were always right on the money.”

He wants to play the Smith Center for the Performing Arts:

“Seeing Carol, that was my first visit there, and it is a great theater. It’s certainly good enough for me to play it,” he says. “I am talking to them now about performing there, and it would be marvelous. The beauty of that theater is it really is equipped to play anything, and it’s great for our business to have great performing arts centers.”

He has a busy January and February scheduled:

“I’ve got a few dates to play in the format I’m in now,” he says. “Detroit, Denver, Philadelphia, New York. I’m going all over the place.”

The typewriter routine (from the film “Who’s Minding the Store”) is a “must” bit:

“I can’t do a show without doing the typewriter. The audience really feels cheated,” he says. “It’d be like going to see Tony Bennett and he doesn’t sing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.’ If I went to see Tony Bennett at $150 a ticket, I want to hear ‘San Francisco!’ I will hear it! (laughs).”

He is comfortable sitting alone, talking to an audience with no orchestra or band:

Lewis has previously played shows with music director Vince Falcone and a small orchestra. But, tonight, as in his three dates in May at the South Point, he is going solo.

“I’ve been doing it this way now for a couple of years, and it really works great,” Lewis says. “I miss the band, at certain times, but I have found that audiences, if they are entertained, they don’t miss anything. If you’ve got them entertained, just go for it. I’m at a point now where it’s fun to reminisce about pieces that you liked. The pieces that I like people like.”

He has more than 400 hours of footage in his personal collection for choosing:

“I’ve got a list over the years of what I consider high points of a show, and every so often once or twice every six months, I’ll examine the material that the list tells me I have,” he says. “It’s fun to pick a new piece, something I can tool with … like, once last year, during the Q+A segment, a woman asked if there was any movie magic in a particular sequence.

“I said, ‘I’ll show it to you live, and then I did it. It was a piece where I am doing a Count Basie recording and miming to it, and it was an incredible response from the audience. There are clips from Martin and Lewis, too, nobody has seen that are just incredible.”

He still wants to see the musical adaptation of “The Nutty Professor” play Broadway:

The musical played Nashville in the summer and fall of 2012, but, as it opened, Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the musical score, died.

“We’re still looking at theaters and seeing what schedules are,” Lewis says. “Losing Marvin Hamlisch was not a good thing, a terrible time. That set us back quite a bit. But we’re going forward, looking for a fall date. That’s where it falls right now.”

He still has dreams of “Paul,” the name he uses for Dean Martin, and thinks of him frequently:

“Yeah, when I’m writing, I always have the feeling he’s in the corner. It’s just been that way since I lost him, and it’s OK,” he says. “There are times I’ll go in the office and sit down and openly look at myself in the mirror and ask, ‘Is this something I want to do?’ And in the back of my mind, if he was there, I hear him say, ‘Do it, and get it the (heck) over with, for Christ’s sake.’

“When I am in that process of thinking back to him, it starts to hurt a little bit, and I have to come off it. I lost him in ’95 and worked with him so very long ago. But I have not had a day, not one day, where I don’t think of him. … I have a wonderful opportunity to bring him into my life whenever I can.”

His formal charity work has ended:

“I’ve done 60 years, my friend. I have every right to concentrate on my family, my work and my life. All of that took second position (to the Muscular Dystrophy Association). Now, they are in the first position. I did good — incredibly, unbelievably — and I should rest on that laurel.”

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

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