Aug. 23, 2007 *
THE STRIP SENSE
The $4 Interview With Doomsayer Jerry Lewis
By STEVE FRIESS
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 would 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 website 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 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
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 fašade 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!"