Last Saturday evening I, along with much of the country, was saddened to hear of the death of comedian Dick Gregory. Calling Gregory a comedian, of course, is a little bit like calling Abe Lincoln a lawyer. Yeah, he did that, but he did some other things too. Mr. Gregory, who was 84, was a champion in the fight for civil rights, children’s rights, human rights, disabled rights, animal rights, and, well, you get the idea. Mr. Gregory also promoted what I suppose we’d now call a “clean” lifestyle, a diet and exercise guru decades before it was mainstream, permitting him, I suppose, the ability to stay on the comedy circuit into his ninth decade. Known in Vanguard circles as one of the major headliners in the early days of the Playboy Club in Chicago, it was these performances that are now cited as the first steps toward true social integration. Until then black performers just didn’t perform in “white” clubs. (Not as equals, anyway. I’d hardly call minstrel shows integration.) This changed through the influence of performers such as Dick Gregory, who would be cited for decades by black (and white) performers as a major inspiration.
Problem with Gregory was that many times he was overshadowed by others. Case in point: Who dies the next day but Jerry Lewis?
If you need to read this tribute to know who Jerry Lewis was, please check out his Wikipedia page first. He was world famous for 70 years, so I’m guessing you’re familiar with his work. Actor, comedian, singer, fundraiser, activist, and yes, to use a trite phrase, legend of show business. He also happens to have been born in 1926, that magical year in which so many legends arrived. (See Club 90 gets fourth member.) Why didn’t Jerry make the original list, you might ask. Well, to be on the list one had to be still doing whatever it was they were famous for doing, and Jerry’s been in a well-deserved retirement for some time.
Not entirely out of the business, of course. Though it was not widely released in the United States, Jerry’s Max Rose is an underrated piece of cinema. Premiering at Cannes in 2013 but not shown in the U.S. until 2016, Max Rose is the story of an aging jazz pianist, among other things hanging out with Mort Sahl, Lee Weaver, and Rance Howard at the coolest old folks home ever. (Well, that’s a piece of the story; there’s a lot more to it than that, but I’d hate to give it all away.) Jerry in his late eighties still had the movie star magic, even if his moves were a little more reserved than they were in his forties. Or the 1940s.
Two comic legends pass but their legacies live on. Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis performed in an era before the ubiquity of YouTube, etc. so it’s not as though every performance was captured.
You had to be there.
Kind of makes you wish you’d been there.