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Slap Shots 

Wednesday, Mar 29 1995
Gotham Gag and Gargle
It's an 8 pm curtain at Marquis Theatre, a plush entertainment complex amid the neon assault of Times Square. A capacity crowd has paid upwards of 70 bucks to glean thoughtful insight - and more than a few chuckles! - from the smash-hit Broadway show Damn Yankess, a no-holds-barred production featuring not one, but two American treasures: baseball and Jerry Lewis. Despite thoughtless mixed reviews, the moment Mr. Lewis takes the stage in the role of the devil, you realize you're in the presence of a true international star, a man so giving he smirks generously during a laugh line, to tip off fans that this moment of dialogue is indeed hilarious - even for him, and he's said the line hundreds of times! Similarly, his comic timing may have mellowed in 69 years, but like a fine wine, it grows especially satisfying when he suddenly slips into that high pitched nasal voice ("Is this your house, LAY-DEE??!!"). Whenever this occurs, several pockets of laughter ensure its success.

The story itself is a cherry celebration of our nation's favorite pastime: a pinch of sentiment, a dash of Faustian negotiation with the devil, a tsunami of traditional family values and more than a few steaming shovelfuls of razzle-dazzle (back flips on the playing field, tap dancing on the dugout roof and dance routines in the shower, including - ar you sitting down? - a chorus of guys gargling mouthwash!). Despite the action, the mind finds time to wander and reflect on the tap dance of everyday life...

Colin Ferguson was recently found guilty of blowing away six people on a Long Island subway, receiving for his efforts the longest sentence in state history, and is now expected to appeal on the grounds he was not mentally capable to stand trial. Oddly enough, that prefessed mental infirmity didn't prevent Mr. Ferguson from acting as his own attorney. And yet he is just one example of diversity within the community voice. A former postal worker checks in by shooting four dead in a New Jersey post office robbery, claiming he "needed to pay the rent."

You don't need to commit a crime to tass off a sound bite, however. One guy crossing the street in Manhattan hears screeching brakes, and without even turning to look, mutters to himself, "Easy does it, amigo"...Another guy creeps into a Lower East SIde bar, selling boxes of Cascade detergent: "Two for one, man"...Jack Miller, co-owner of the West Village's Universal Grill, proudly attests, "It's not a party if nobody yells 'Timber!'"... And at the nightclub premiere of her new video, where buffed-out back bodybuiders are hired to loiter around the pool table in G-strings and cowboy hats, The Artist Once Known as Madonna introduces her supposedly long-awaited video with a screechy "Is everybody ready to pawty?" to a screaming mob of media twits, drag queens and big-haired chubby girls from New Jersey.

Jerry Lewis certainly knew how to party. In her 1992 autobiography My First 2,000 Men, startlet/gun moll Liz Renay remembered Mr. Lewis as a lover with, shall we say, specific requests. Not wishing to ruin his marriage by physically touching another woman, Mr. Lewis waved off intercourse, reportedly opting for watching Renay pose in garters while masturbating onto a favorite peice of white shag carpet, which he carried with him everywhere. While cleaning up after one such encounter, Lewis is said to have exclaimed, "This has to be the world's most honored rug!"

The only rug publicly displayed tonight at Damn Yankees, however, is Lewis' hair-piece, an impeccable speciman that must have cost thousands, custom-designed to withstand the rigors of vaudeville hat-and-cane schmaltz. Some see Jerry as simply a washed-up punching bag for cheap shots, a Goofus to Dean Martin's Gallant. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once you've read the interview wherein Mr. Lewis explains his Broadway debut ("This dream coming true is something I have to really be certain I'm terrific at, I need that for me."), you understand the depth of theatrical preparation behind the fool, the Shakespeare behind the Chaplin, the Moliere behind the Mengele.

Is there a message behind Damn Yankees? The line "There are more important things in life than being a hero" might suffice, since it is served up with such gusto you almost expect a well-groomed man to offer an engraved card as you exit: "Hi, my name is Steve, thanks for coming, enjoy tonight's message." In fact, New York is full of messages, some more succint than others. "Don't Walk" means "Walk." "Regular coffee" means "with milk." A sign in a '70s kitsch store reads: "Unattended children will be sold as slaves!" A stationary store window offers: "No dogs. Vicious dog-hating cat inside. This is not a joke. You must inform us that you have a dog or you will not be able to enter the store." The info desk at the WonderCamp indoor children's playground cautions: "Socks and kneepads required." A scrawled flier pasted on a phone booth hollers: "To Clinton and Gore. Safe! You're out of it. All you have to do is pull you faces out of Vader's ass. Which is sitting on them. It's a formidable task. But you might have the dexterity to succeed, and show no signs of where you have been." Point taken.

Perhaps the most charming aspect of Jerry Lewis is the role of celebrity, which he embraces with an almost fetishistic zeal: "To have done as much as I've done and still get a shot at something I've never done - I mean, it's really incredible!" The Nobel Peace Prize nominee graciuosly stays after the show to sign autographs "for a small fee of $30," with proceeds to benefit AIDS research. After 40 years of muscular dystrophy fundraisers, the concept of charity become almost a reflex action. A cast member holds a donation basket and chats with a growing line of signature-seekers, promising, "Jerry's just about to come out, so get ready with your money." The Titan of Telethons effortlessly toggles his inner charm mechanism, smiling and signing baseballs, occasionally lapsing into a surly "We don't do ictures." When the line bottlenecks, somebody apologizes for the delay. Jerry Lewis caps his red Sharpie pen and exclaims, "Get the loot out of that sucker.

About The Author

Jack Boulware


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