Lewis remembered as ‘comic genius,’ including local telethon promotions

Diane DeVaughn (left) and Doug Williams watch from their table during a Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon in the 1970s for a local tie-in at WBTW-TV 13 as Jim Griffin interviews the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and wife Nancy Thurmond.

The sun dimmed Sunday morning on the death of Jerry Lewis, 91, at home in Las Vegas.

Diane DeVaughn Stokes, though, celebrated his life in a sunny way later in the day, gathering thoughts about special moments she shared with the late comedian and show and film entertainer perhaps best known as host for the Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon spanning more than four decades from 1966.

Stokes, radio host, noon-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays on “Easy Radio” — simulcast on WEZV-FM 105.9 and WGTN-FM 100.7 — and the “Inside Out” monthly TV show on HTC channel 4, called Lewis a “comic genius” and “an amazing talent.”

On the local lovel, Stokes counted hosting and helping produce seven MDA telethons on WBTW-TV 13 in the 1970s, and three on WPDE-TV 15 in the 1980s.

“Jerry,” she said, “was incredible as he taped promos with all the talent across the country. He did 100 promos each day during the four-day session and ad-libbed each of them, being goofy and doing everything from running his fingers across a bald man’s head who was trying to deliver the infomation about his respective telethon, to licking a person’s neck, which he did with me.”

Stokes also admired Lewis for being “very genuine.”

“He loved ‘Jerry’s Kids,’ ” she said of his reference to beneficiaries from MDA telethons, “as we witnessed lots of interaction with him and them during Las Vegas training.”

Visiting Las Vegas for telethon preparations, Stokes said, she also met two other entertainment icons, the late Casey Kasem – host for the “American Top 40” weekly radio countdowns and the voice of such cartoon characters as Shaggy in the original “Scooby Doo” series – and late comedian Don Rickles.

“But none was more amazing than Jerry,” Stokes said, remembering Labor Day weekend in 1976. “I was fortunate to be a local MDA telethon host when Dean Martin surprised Jerry Lewis with a reunion that brought tears to everyone’s eyes. When I returned for my local cut-in, I looked like a raccoon from the mascara that had circled my eyes.”

One of Lewis’ six surviving children, Gary Lewis – who with his group, The Playboys, had such hit records in the mid-1960s as “This Diamond Ring,” “Count Me In” and “She’s Just My Style” – reflected on his father’s influence during a Sun News interview in May 2014.

Gary Lewis said his family looked forward to Labor Day telethons “like Christmas” and that the Playboys played a part in the telethon nearly every year.

Son followed father in charitable outreach, too. Gary Lewis, who served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam in the later 1960s, soon entertained in USO shows, and he stays active with Help Heal Veterans – formerly Help Hospitalized Veterans, established in 1971 – a group based in California (951-926-4500 or www.healvets.org), “to raise awareness” of sacrifices made by people in uniform.

Asked about lessons learned from his father, Gary Lewis got candid.

“He told me,” Gary Lewis said, “ ‘I don’t care what you do with your life, as long as you give it 100 percent and love it with all your heart.’ That says it right there.”

 

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