Although comedy fans may not immediately react when they hear the name Sylvia Lewis, they will almost instinctively burst out in appreciative laughter when they see the sexy, funny dancer/actress/comedienne.
Sylvia Lewis is an iconic movie and TV figure, who has made a memorable impression opposite such laugh legends as The Three Stooges, Abbott & Costello, Dick Van Dyke and, perhaps most prominently, Jerry Lewis (with and without Dean).
Stooge addicts worship Sylvia’s satanic devil girl, Helen Blazes – out to seduce Shemp in 1955’s Bedlam in Paradise. Bedlam it was (of sorts) as you will soon learn.
She also survived a triad of B-pix for the notorious producer Jungle Sam Katzman. The first, Siren of Bagdad (1953), an early Richard Quine-directed tits-and-sand opus, featured Paul Henreid doing a devastating parody of his famed Now, Voyager move – simultaneously lighting and puffing on two hookahs, before handing one to a buxom harem girl; Drums of Tahiti (1954) pushed a plethora of 3-D effects into the camera’s puss – all under the tutelage of director William Castle; Cha-Cha-Cha Boom (1956), one of Katzman’s rock ‘n’ roll quickies, gave Syl what is likely her closest bid to a starring role – as a vampish vixen gyrating to the Latin beat of Perez Prado. Cha-Cha, perhaps the least-known of Katzman’s rock pics, is ironically his best; the director was his house fave, the prolific Fred F. Sears (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Giant Claw)!
It is the work with another Lewis – Jerry – that ultimately places the beautiful performer in the Comedy Hall of Fame. As the strangely-christened Miss Cartilage, Sylvia dominates (and we mean that in every B&D way) her bizarre sequence in what is for many Jerry’s finest movie triumph, 1961’s near-surreal The Ladies Man. It is the segment everyone familiar with the flick instantly remembers…and with good reason.
Hailing from Pennsylvania, Sylvia Lewis’ journey to Hollywood began with her family’s cross-country migration when she was just twelve. Her passionate devotion to dancing provided the impetus that so many of her fellow gypsies utilized to enter the movies: she lied about her age. Thus, still a teenager, she glided across the screen in the 1947 Gene Kelly musical Living in a Big Way (“…possibly the worst musical MGM ever made! I still remember with shock the sight of Gene showing up at rehearsal sans his rug!”). Syl fared a bit better five years later in another Kelly MGM outing – as a tango dancer in the classic Singin’ in the Rain.
From then on it was a whirlwind ride through the nightmares of live television – securing gigs on The Colgate Comedy Hour, as a regular/featured dancer on the celebrated Ray Bolger series Where’s Raymond?, the outrageous gorgeous alluring femme dancing lead in the John Wayne kitsch epic The Conqueror, and more. She bumped-and-grinded with pal Sheree North in an eye-popping strip contest in Frank Tashlin’s The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1955) and twirled the Hungarian light fantastic in Nick Ray’s campy 1956 opus Hot Blood (she also functioned as the pic’s co-choreographer for the movie’s jubilant dance numbers; by the 1970s, Sylvia moved into choreography full-time, putting performers through their paces through musical moments of such long-running programs as The Jeffersons, Who’s the Boss?, Living Dolls and Married With Children).
Every achievement mentioned above is worthy of a separate article (and might end up as one), but it’s the comedy and Katzman stuff that always intrigued me. As I have known Sylvia for several years (there usually isn’t a day where we don’t email each other), I approached the possibility of a series of interviews regarding her diverse show biz accomplishments with relish, albeit slight trepidation (she tends to shy away from discussing herself at length). Much to my delight, she acquiesced (“Sure, it’ll be fun!”); what do I know?! Sylvia, I should proudly add, is an avid reader of Supervistaramacolorscope; in fact, one of the supreme joys of same is receiving Syl’s delightful feedback emails, almost guaranteed to contain some wonderful and often hilarious anecdote (“You mentioned Hugo Friedhofer – I MUST tell you this story…”).
Naturally, just when I figured I had her pegged, Sylvia gives me historical comeuppance; I had assumed what with the Stooges, Katzman and Hot Blood that she had a Columbia contract (“I never had a contract with any studio…The Columbia assignments were totally coincidental – a project-by-project for hire situation. The only contract I had was on Where’s Raymond?. By this time, the studios were really phasing out the contract system. The only one still doing that was Universal-International. They had that huge bank of contractees.”). Again, what do I know!
But enough with me! Comedy fans rejoice – the party is about to begin!
Sylvia Lewis on Bedlam in Paradise: I had been working in live TV since I was 18; by the time I started working at Columbia, I had graduated from the chorus and was regularly doing character roles. One day I got a call from my agent, who told me that they wanted to see me over at Columbia. It was for a Three Stooges short, and they thought that I would be good for one of the parts. So I went over to Columbia and their casting guy looked at me and liked me…and sent me over to Jules White, who was the director. Jules White was kind of a crazy man – really hyper. He was not like any director I had ever worked for – a true character, practically bouncing off the walls! Genuine Borscht Belt stuff – that’s the way he struck me. Not a typical Hollywood director by any means. And he was working so fast because (at least by this time) they were churning these things out for no budget. I’m not kidding – this isn’t an exaggeration; I went in there in the morning, Jules and I briefly talked about what the scene was going to be, I was approved, went to wardrobe where they devised that Devil costume – really just leotard tights with a tail tied on to my butt – and we were done before lunch!
When we shot the scene for my little dance, they didn’t even have a music track, just beats [does clicking sounds]. That was the rhythm. And Jules would shout, “Okay, okay, Sylvia – here’s what you do…You dance around Shemp, and you vamp him, vamp him…Give him the vamp!” We ran through it a couple of times, rolled the cameras. PRINT! Done by lunch!
I had so little to do with the Stooges – as far as personal contact. And it was all done so quickly. Most of my screen time was with Phil van Zandt. This is going to break Stooge fans hearts, but Moe and Larry weren’t even there when we did the scene. As for Shemp – he was just so cute and sweet…and, what can I say, he did his thing. We had virtually no conversation other than what was called for in the script. He was so adorable doing his bit and was very nice to me…totally pro, like everyone on the set. But it was do it, go on with the next shot and go home. That was the attitude. And I feel so bad for all the Stooge buffs who always want to hear about what the three of them were like to work with. As for kissing Shemp [laughs], hey, what ya see is what you get. No interaction other than what was filmed. A very nice man, but that was that.
SL on “Jungle Sam” Katzman: (laughs) Ohhhh, boy – where do I begin? Siren of Bagdad was the first of the three pictures I did for him. Then Drums [of Tahiti], and, finally, Cha-Cha [Cha Boom]. Sam Katzman was – how can I say it? – almost like a cartoon version of what one would envision a Hollywood producer to be. By that I mean in stature he was a small man. He was portly – always had a cigar in his mouth…He was a total caricature. He walked around with a cane…a walking stick…and the hand of the walking stick was a very beautiful carving, and the carving was [pauses]…an upside down hand flipping the bird with the middle finger extended. And while walking around the set, he would use that cane [laughs] to…goose people. That was his sense of humor. So, to put it mildly, he was rather crass. No pun, but he was really a “hands-on” guy; by that I mean he was always on the set, walking around making sure that he was visible. While he was making sure he was being watched, he, in turn, always watched the clock. Let’s face it – he was really the King of the B’s. Time was his biggest deal because, as you well know (especially in the picture business, but particularly in this aspect of it – the budget programmers), time was money.
If you worked on a Sam Katzman picture, you rarely had a chance to do a second take. You better get it right the first time! They really couldn’t be that picky and choosy about a fine performance. They’d hire people who they felt were pros enough (and had enough of a name) to deliver the goods, to memorize the lines from the get-go…to a point where, at the very least, it was “acceptable.” It was always a hurry-up-and-get-it-done feeling on a Katzman set. It was a given that from the moment you set foot on the soundstage, that you were going to be in a rush. That was Sam’s credo – to run a tight ship and his employees, specifically the females, generally took him with a grain of salt. I mean, they knew he was the boss and ordinarily a woman would respond to his kind of demeanor with a “Bugger off, buddy – walking stick and all…It’s not funny…” That’s what we felt, but, of course, nobody would ever actually say anything to him…A big fish in a small pond. In that respect (or lack of it), he got away with murder…not exactly what you would call one of Nature’s noblemen [laughs]. Let’s put it this way: he certainly had a knack, because, considering how low-budget these pictures were, he created a fairly decent-looking product. For instance, we shot Cha-Cha-Cha Boom – I think there were something like 12-15 musical numbers (and Dante diPaolo and I did seven or eight dances together) – within a schedule that allowed us only a two week rehearsal period. The only instructions we had was that we dancers had to block everything ourselves. “Now go to it!”
We were essentially locked in this small studio – all the dancers, the choreographer and assistant choreographer…and, once we emerged, once we got to the set, it was understood that everything had been done…Forget about being allowed freedom…it was more accurately pressure – no one from the front office or the Katzman group would have ever thought about interfering with us within that short amount of time. At that juncture, the choreographer was the boss. It was overwhelming to even think about how much stuff we had to learn. You know, to learn and memorize the routines and lines is one thing, but retaining that information from what we had rehearsed two weeks earlier, plus the costume fittings…it was grueling. The entire shooting schedule was under a month. From beginning to end, it came out to 26 days at the most! Outrageous and impossible, but…that’s where Sam’s “genius” came in. He was the absolute master at doing those quickies. He did very well – and did so for a very long time. Rock Around the Clock [his first ‘50s teen musical] put him on the map for that kind of picture. That was probably done even faster than the subsequent pictures, but that was his forte. The cha-cha craze was the obvious impetus for our movie; Sam was intent on cashing in on every aspect of the teen music scene. He thought it was going to be huge – potentially even bigger than the Bill Haley movies he had done [Rock Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock; in 1961, Katzman unleashed Twist Around the Clock, quickly followed by Don’t Knock the Twist with Chubby Checker replacing Haley].
Regarding Drums of Tahiti, I can affectionately state that I really liked [director] Bill Castle. He reminded me in many ways of Frank Tashlin: a great big guy…a lovable teddy bear. Who knew that he had lurking within him all those gimmicky fright pictures…Smell-O-Vision…and the one where the buzzers went off under the seats [i.e. Percepto, used in The Tingler]…the ghost movies…When I worked with him, he was just another person doing a job along with all the other people in the cast and crew. And they were great: Paul Henreid, Patricia Medina etc. They worked so hard, just total pros who knew their stuff. Yeah, we ground it out, but with a certain aplomb…in spite of the fact that that there was no time for finessing or to hone anything down. That would have been a luxury – and that wasn’t available to us, not on those low-budget pictures. The 3-D element in Tahiti was interesting to me. I obviously knew what they were going for, and, truly, it was the only time I recall any extensive re-shooting on a Katzman picture – you know, in order to get all those at-the-camera depth shots right. I do remember a scene in Tahiti involving an argument between Dennis O’Keefe and Pat…She threw things at him and they would naturally do a reverse angle from the camera’s point of view. That required a number of retakes [in order to work for the 3-D effect], which drove Sam bonkers.
For my dance, I had to stick those damn flaming torches exactly at the right point into the lens. It had to be 100% precise or the stereo optics wouldn’t work. Again, it was the only time I can think of where extra takes were done on a Katzman movie.
The director on Cha-Cha-Cha Boom was a man named Fred Sears. If I had to describe him, it would be a very quiet, soft-spoken but schedule-driven professional. On a picture like that, which had such time constraints, well, your one absolute is to get it right on the first go…or else. In other words, the director really has no opportunity to direct. His one function was basically to say, “Roll ‘em!” and “Cut!” It sounds unbelievable, but in that kind of a situation, the director’s contribution is minimal. There’s no leeway given to take the actors aside and have any kind of conversation regarding how a line is to be said or played. You come in with your dialogue memorized, they tell you where to stand…to move from right to left. Fred Sears’ main objective was to have his shots worked out with the cameraman in the easiest and fastest manner. Master, cover one person, cover the other person…really that was it. Movie-making at its simplest. That said, Fred Sears was a nice man, but, as you might imagine from what I described, there was very little interaction between him and the rest of us actors.
My co-star/dance partner Dante diPaolo and I had been friends since I was a teenager. He had come back from the service after World War II to the dancing school where I was studying. He was in his early-mid-twenties…He had actually been working in pictures since he was a kid. I think he had done a Bing Crosby picture when he was 12! Dante was great pals with all the choreographers and we had studied, danced and performed together so much that it when he was offered the part in Cha-Cha (he had worked for the picture’s choreographer as a dancer at the Tropicana in Vegas), he got me role as his partner. It was, in that respect, very easy for us to work together. We’ve remained great friends since. I talk to him at least once a week. He was the greatest hoofer I have ever known, and could dance rings around his higher profile stellar competition. He was so laid back and mellow, humble and unimpressed with himself, which I guess, worked against him as far as promoting that “big” Hollywood push that one needs.
Comedian Jose Gonzalez-Gonzalez was very friendly, very accommodating – he just worked his butt off. I don’t know whether or not he had ever done a feature film before Cha-Cha…perhaps he had in Mexico…He was so at ease with what he was doing, so very comfortable in his own skin. I was very impressed with that.
SL on Abbott & Costello: Wow – the one episode I recall [from the Colgate Comedy Hour] was right around Eisenhower’s winning the 1952 election. It was a sketch surrounding the Inauguration Ball. I had a little featured bit that I did, but I was really just a chorus dancer in the piece. So there was very little (if any) interaction with the stars. The headliners – the comics – had so much material to memorize and work out – remember all those shows were shot live. The requirements expected of them were really extraordinary. I don’t know how they did it – even with the Colgate rotating schedule [A&C alternated with Martin & Lewis, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, Donald O’Connor, etc.]. Even if they only did one show a month, it was still a huge task to master. I remember Abbott & Costello being very present, driven but approachable…No “star” bullshit. Simply put, they were two very hard-working comics. They were also very pleasant to be around. [In spite of the oft-mentioned problems that one hears at this point in their careers] there was nothing negative on that set. They didn’t argue, and appeared to genuinely like each other. I don’t honestly remember even hearing anything negative about them. Unfortunately I never really got to know them too well. Would have liked to – they seemed like a couple of nice guys.
SL on Jerry Lewis and The Ladies Man: The way I got the part [of Miss Cartilage] was due to my appearance in Vintage ’60, a revue that was playing in Hollywood. It had been running for almost a year. David Merrick saw it and thought, “Well, this is such a hit here – it’ll be a smash on Broadway!” So he bought the show and brought us all to New York to be one of the premiere attractions in the newly refurbished Brooks Atkinson Theatre. We were all just thrilled to pieces; other cast members included Bert Convy, Jack Albertson – really wonderful people. So to New York we went. Well we lasted a whopping ten performances! So disillusioned and deflated – back to L.A. we came. The thing is that in Hollywood, the show was still playing to packed houses – so most of us simply went right back into the West Coast production. Anyway, one night Bill Richmond, whom I had known since I was a kid, and his wife came to see me in the show…and a couple of days later, I get a call from my agent telling me that they wanted to see me at Paramount. Now let me tell you that Bill, who is a fantastic musician (he was both Peggy Lee’s and Frank Sinatra’s drummer), was currently co-writing movies with Jerry Lewis [includingThe Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, The Patsy – they would go on to collaborate on seven features].
Their latest [and the first Richmond co-wrote] was The Ladies Man and Jerry had envisioned a certain way-out scene in the picture; during a meeting with Bill, he related how he “saw” this strangely exquisite creature in a totally white room. She would be this mysterious gal in black. “I want her to be a great dancer,” he told Bill. “And dynamite looking – a real knockout!” Da-da-da-da-da, and so on. And Bill replied, “I know exactly the person you’re looking for – you’ve just described a friend of mine, Sylvia Lewis!” Jerry was immediately intrigued – primarily because we both had the same last name [laughs]. So he had me come in for an interview, and he filmed it as a screen test. If you have the DVD of The Ladies Man, you can actually see this audition – they put it on a supplemental extra. It’s weird because it was the first and only screen test I ever had – and now it’s there for posterity – for everyone to see [laughs]. So Jerry hired me to do that role and they started shooting the picture, but the sequence involving me wasn’t to be shot until everything else had been completed on that incredible “big rooming house” set that Jerry had constructed on one of the Paramount soundstages. The set for my scene was built on another soundstage at the studio. So I really wasn’t needed until the end; however, Jerry insisted that I be there every day.
Each morning I’d arrive at Paramount, and there I was – on full (and very well-paid) salary – politely showing up…and that was all! That said, I was hoping to get some time in with him during the filming where we could grab a few minutes here and there and discuss ideas for the number, maybe even work out some choreography…you know, just to get a handle on it. Eleven weeks went by – and I’m just sitting there…watching Jerry work…and not one minute was spent on the sequence we were going to do. Frustrating to say the least. When it came time to move over to our set, it was really starting from scratch – no prep whatsoever. Absolutely the most expensive way possible to make a movie, but, I can honestly say, that he didn’t seem to have too much concern about those matters. He took me on the set, and we started talking about the scene. And he said to me, “I want you to basically just follow me – whatever I do…” He had hand-picked a track and had the sound man play it back for us and told me, “Listen to this, memorize it and when you follow me, follow me like it’s a dancing version of what I’m doing. Whatever I do, react to it – and stay with me! Don’t stay too far behind me, dance after me and with me…” It was really improv. Then he started to explain how he wanted me to come down from above – out of nowhere – on a rope. “I see you coming down on this velvet rope. That’s how you first appear in frame.” He told me that he would turn my head, and I would respond with “Hi, honey.”
Now while he’s describing this routine, the crew is standing around dormant – all on the time clock. But it didn’t matter, as that was Jerry’s way. Then the discussion turned to how we were going to achieve that upside down shot, how I was going to be lowered down into the frame. A couple of crew members figured out how to hold me until I was ready to be slowly dropped into the scene. And Jerry heard this, and said, “No, no, no – she can’t really be doing that. It’s too dangerous.” He then called for his assistant, and said, “Get the casting people down here.” So someone comes down, and Jerry tells them, “See this person here? I want someone – stunt girls – in here immediately and that means NOW! I want types who can double for Sylvia.” So they leave, and we’re hanging around on the set – again with the entire crew plus the full Harry James Orchestra, who were in the sequence – continually talking the number through, doing a little impromptu rehearsing…all of that…, and about four hours later, the casting folks return to the soundstage with a half a dozen stunt girls. Once again everything stops while Jerry checks these women out. So he looks at them all carefully while I’m standing by. The upshot is that, after about three minutes, he shakes his head, and says “Oh, there’s no one here that can double her! No way anyone will believe that it’s the same person.” So I stepped forward and told him, “Look, Jerry, I can do it. It’s no big deal.” “No, no, no – it’s too dangerous!” “Jerry – it’s not dangerous. These are big, strong guys – they can hold me. They won’t let me drop. I’m not afraid to do it – and I want to do it! Give me a chance, let me do it. Really, don’t worry. I won’t get hurt” He looks at me and says, “You promise?” And I laughed, “I promise.”
So he dismisses the casting people and the stunt girls…and I got myself into that black skin-tight outfit. The guys up in the catwalk – not the highest ceiling one, but a lower tier that was used for secondary lighting – selected the best vantage point, and they raised me up with the camera crane. There, four of the strongest guys on the crew, prepared for action. One of them took my left ankle, another my right ankle. The other two took my hands – I had them outstretched – and I scrunched way down. But then I started to tip over, and they grabbed my ankles. They slowly let go of my hands, and I put my arms tight by my side…and down I went, as they lined up the shot to get to the point where my face was directly opposite to Jerry’s. I did the thing where I turned my head, after which they pulled me back up. “You okay?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m fine.” And we just shot it. No big deal – the only big deal was the delay where Jerry thought he needed stuntwomen to do the entrance instead of me. It was actually kind of fun. I wouldn’t do it now [laughs], but I was fearless then. After being around for eleven weeks, I think it took us maybe three days to film the entire white room segment.
Later, when Jerry got his  NBC-TV show, I became one of his cast regulars. That actually came about because by that time, I had married Ed Simmons, who was the head writer. So it was just sort of a natural – Jerry was comfortable with me and Ed could write little things for me to do. That was great fun.
My last appearance with Jerry was on one of the telethons – a really lovely memory…Jerry, as you may recall, always opened the telethons with some stupendous musical number. Some show-stopping spectacular to immediately grab the viewers’ attention. So this one year, Jerry decided that it would be a good idea for the grandmas and the grandpas to kick off the festivities with a dance number. So he hired all of us old gypsies – anybody who had worked in any one of his films, any of his shows [laughs] who was still alive and ambulatory. I think there were 42 of us. So we went into a rehearsal hall with [Emmy-award winning choreographer] Anita Mann and threw this number together. Now Jerry had not seen anything until the day of the telethon. So here we were at the studio – it was a top hat and tails thing – guys and gals – we all looked alike. We were on the stage, blocking the number for camera when Jerry arrived. At once everything stopped. And he was like a little kid – he just wandered amongst us, his eyes all lit up (he always loved dancers). He was absolutely thrilled by this reunion, roaming to and fro surrounded by all these folks who had, at one time or another, been involved in one or more Jerry Lewis projects. Well he wound up in front of me, put his arms out, gave me a great big bear hug, and he said, “Nice of you to check in every twenty years or so.” And that was it – he was so happy. And he walked off – it was so adorable [laughs]. I was just so floored by that – out of all these “kids,” he would pick me out and kind of knock my sox off. The number, by the way, was a big success. And that was the last time I saw or spoke to him. Thus end my tales of Jerry…at least for now!
Visit Sylvia on her website [http://www.sylvialewis.net/index.htm]
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