Americans? Not so much. But now that Lewis is gone, I suspect the passionate anti-Lewis folks will quiet down and remember him as the ultimate Catskill comic, who played the doofus skinny marink to Dean Martin’s suave guy. Brilliant! In the years that followed WWII, lots of guys identified with Martin, though they feared they were really more like the inept character Lewis personified. After Lewis and Martin split, Jerry went on to do all manner of things. Whether or not he really invented video assist (still used by directors today) is controversial, but he was a notable filmmaker, writing, producing, and directing many of his own films (The Bellboy, The Nutty Professor, The Ladies’ Man), eventually garnering the attention of French film critics. If you’re curious, read an obituary. Variety and the Los Angeles Times both gave lavish treatments. The Lewis obit in The New York Times almost qualifies as a posthumous resumé. But it’s flawed, failing to mention an interesting sideline in Lewis‘ career that nearly drove him into bankruptcy: he actually went into business as the owner of a chain of movie theaters. I wrote about this little-known career fiasco myself two years ago, and I offer it here once again, in tribute. As one reader, Brian, commented recently on reading the original post, “In that picture, Jerry Lewis looks like he's ready to vomit. Perhaps in that moment he had a vision into the future and ultimate fate of Jerry Lewis Cinemas...”
Read all about it here:
The one in Canton, CT is a post office. The St. Louis franchise morphed into Cathedral of the Crossroads, and the Niagara Falls venue has been split between OTB (Off Track Betting) and a pizzeria. Jerry Lewis Cinemas as a franchise concept were a horrible failure, with perhaps 200 of these small (less than 300-seat) cinemas open nationwide at their peak in the mid-seventies. While we were going broke running a 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theater, in Staten Island, only twenty minutes away another would-be entrepreneur was struggling to keep the doors of the local Jerry Lewis franchise on Forest Avenue open and in operation. We had more in common with this unfortunate theater operator than we might have been willing to admit.
We were a buck-fifty, second-run house. They were a buck seventy-five. We booked The Sunshine Boys if I remember, for what was supposed to be an exclusive second run, and they got their hands on exactly the same product. In newspaper parlance you could say they “scooped” us, but it didn’t really matter, because there was no way we could cover our overhead, even if every soul who sat in their cracker-box seats had come over to our tough super-urban St. George neighborhood. As rivals we were both failing, and for many of the same reasons. For much of the rest of the year we were in business they continued to run Airport 1975, trying to work off a huge advance.
What exactly were the Jerry Lewis Cinemas anyhow? How did the comic star whose name is most associated with Dean Martin or with Muscular Dystrophy telethons nearly go bankrupt himself with a chain of movie theater franchises?
“If you can press a button and meet our investment requirements, you can own one or a chain of Jerry Lewis Cinemas...” began the full-page October 8, 1969 ad in Variety.
Seven years later, as we prepared to open our own movie house, we could have taken a lesson from this already failing business model. By the mid-seventies, a number of Jerry Lewis franchisees — including, probably, the poor guy on Forest Avenue — had already discovered what we in turn would learn. Of all the businesses on earth to jump into feet first, movie theater operation, with (in the seventies) its dearth of available product, wars with movie distributors, and hidden costs, might be second only to restaurant ownership in difficulty of management. The typical Jerry Lewis theater owner was a movie-goer, not someone who had grown up tearing ticket stubs or popping popcorn. To quote Cinelog, “...the most glaring flaw was the very concept that anyone could own a theatre and operate it with minimal effort. As with far too many ‘get rich’ schemes, all of the [operators] had been ‘blinded’ by their fantasies and failed to consider the practical realities of running a successful business, let alone a business as unique as a movie theatre.”
Near as I can tell, our local Jerry Lewis Cinema went out of business around 1980. It is rumored (verification unavailable) that they were turned off by Con Ed for non-payment of their electric, something that nearly happened to us on several occasions.
By that time, Jerry Lewis and his partner in the venture, National Cinemas Corporation had filed for bankruptcy, though Lewis saved himself by making a movie with the ironic title, Hardly Working. He is said to have greatly regretted his decision to found this ill-starred chain, and the feeling, amongst former managers and their families, seems to have been the only thing that was mutual.
To quote Cinelog once again, “...one particular individual [a former franchisee]...relayed that, even thirty plus years after the fact, Lewis’ yearly telethon appearance never fails to anger him.” It hadn’t been Lewis’ intention to fail. He made several mistakes, not the least of which was to establish a chain which booked only G and PG movies at a time when R ratings were the norm. But in the larger sense, he made the same mistake we made at our failing movie palace: he thought you didn’t have to have any direct experience to run a movie theater. Perhaps, as a performer, he assumed that the movie exhibition business was no big deal. He assumed, as we did in a completely different theater setting, that you can jump into the water and then learn how to swim.
Afterthought: I liked Martin and Lewis, but avoided Jerry Lewis films like the plague, when I was young. Lewis was old hat, I thought. Now, having read enough about people standing in the rain in Paris for tickets to Docteur Jerry et Mr. Love (aka The Nutty Professor), I’m intrigued. It’s a take-off on Dr. Jekyll apparently, and that makes sense to me now. Wasn’t he half of something once, with Dean Martin?
Here are some of the great comments from readers of this original Jerry Lewis blog post:
For a man who taught film @USC and invented the instant playback for directors, he was very naive about film distribution. My first real job was in a theater and I learned quickly that it's about entertaining your paying customers. —Charles Winfield
i think they were probably doomed with g and pg movies, as pg-13 didn't arrive until 1984. —Brett Adams
In that picture, Jerry Lewis looks like he's ready to vomit. Perhaps in that moment he had a vision into the future and ultimate fate of Jerry Lewis Cinemas... —Brian
My family owned a franchise in St. Louis. Maybe the one that's now the Cathedral of the Crossroads. I remember seeing Monty Python's Flying Circus there when I was in Kindergarten. So, not a total loss for me. —Brian S
The first movie I saw at my local Jerry Lewis Cinema in 1973 was the R-rated SAVE THE TIGER. —Donald Farmer (I failed to catch the irony in this comment earlier: the franchisee was breaking the rules of Jerry Lewis Cinema management, by running an R. But who could blame the poor character?)