Don’t Call Me Jerry Lewis – My Life Performing for Retirement Homes

Nicholas Arnold as Jerry Lewis. Photo by Christina Petsinis

I sat on the train as it sped along its route from Toronto to Hamilton. Resting beside my legs was a suitcase with a silver microphone stand sticking out from the top. A collection of suits were inside, including an ill-fitting tux, character hats, buck-teeth, bottle-cap glasses—the classic ‘nerd uniform’ requirements. This was my gig. A Jerry Lewis Tribute Artist for the elderly.

When I was 20-years-old, I performed my one-man show, ‘A Tribute to Jerry Lewis‘ for retirement residences for two years; lugging my suitcase from home to home and working tirelessly through old vaudeville routines and physical slapstick to the tepid applause of residents. It was a vanity project. I wanted to be a star. In fact, my goal was to emulate Jerry Lewis’ career and the circuit of nursing homes I toured around in were my string of 1940s nightclubs.

How I would make the leap from community centre common room to theatre main stage was beyond me at the time, but it didn’t matter. I was a professional performer—paid in only a few small dollars, yes, but a professional performer nonetheless. My material wasn’t great. I didn’t sing—which is probably more in line with what residents were after. Plus, my show had me impersonating Jerry Lewis at the time—truly pretending to be him; berating guests and telling jokes that were deeply embedded in the social and political climate of the 1940s—which I can only imagine was a little confusing for my audience.

While pursuing this ego-driven quest, I couldn’t help but acknowledge where and who I was performing for. Residents would casually walk into their living quarters or common area, they’d sit patiently and wait for their afternoon of entertainment to start. And then I would prance out, weaving into a barrage of Borscht Belt jokes and exaggerated faces. The gags were met with minimal to no laughter and the applause at the end, I’m sure, was due to the fact that I was leaving. It was a thankless and frustrating job.

Jerry Lewis in The Jerry Lewis Show

I blamed the residents for not understanding my act. It was their fault, not mine. I recall arriving at one home and stumbling upon a sign in the elevator advertising my event. It read: “Musical Appreciation Night with Jerry Lee Lewis” … and a picture of Elvis Presley. In another home, I performed in their dining room while my audience ate. During my opening monologue (a tedious run-on sentence of outdated jokes and ‘Hey Lady’s’), one of the residents decided he had enough. He began backing out from the table in his motorized scooter, which had been nestled in there quite nicely. As residents shuffled in their chairs and moved tables to provide a path for his exit, I did my best not to break and shudder from pure embarrassment. To this day it is the slowest and most unintentional standing ovation I’ve ever received.

Despite my frustration as a performer, touring from home to home gave me perspective on care for the elderly here in Canada. It could be argued that Western views of old age are often negative—perhaps unintentionally negative, but negative all the same. It’s a reminder of what we all must one day face; a symbol of the end of productivity—and God forbid productivity ever end. In our culture of wealth and excess, it’s easy to surmise how losing ones’ cognitive or motor skills could be viewed as a death sentence. With that fear embedded in our subconscious culture, what do we do? We put our elderly in a building, give them a TV, some books to read and allow them to grow old away from us—out of sight and out of mind—while we continue to chase money, grow companies and compete in the daily grind.

…and God forbid productivity ever end

Retirement homes, communities, and facilities are needed and provide an incredible service, however, when comparing our general treatment of the elderly here in Canada to the care and reverence given to elders in many other cultures, one can’t help but raise a few questions. In Eastern cultures, for instance, the elderly are respected and admired. A 2017 Huffington Post article describes aging as not just a biological process, but also a cultural one. Arianna Huffington, herself, speaks on the subject in her book, On Becoming Fearless, when she describes her experience visiting Greece: “The idea of honoring old age [in Greece], indeed identifying it with wisdom and closeness to God, is in startling contrast to the way we treat aging in America.

Rather than something to be feared, old age is understood to be a rite of passage in many other cultures. China even implemented an ‘Elderly Rights Law‘ which states that grown children in China must visit their parents or face potential fines. This is in response to what China has viewed as a growing problem of lonely elders. A law like that is certainly problematic in terms of how it is enforced and the potential for litigation, but it does shed light on the fact that care for seniors is a world-wide endeavour, and various countries approach it in different ways. If anything, the ‘Elderly Rights Law’ is a public-service message: Visit your parents or grandparents. Make sure their lives are fulfilling.

Touring homes, I learned quickly about the different types of care senior citizens require here in Canada. There are retirement communities, nursing homes and, perhaps the most vital, long-term care. Each provide different levels of assistance based on the need of their occupants. Performing for long-term care was often the most difficult and the least satisfying from an egotistic perspective. These residents weren’t showering you with praise after a performance. Often you wondered if they had noticed you at all.

Since 2010, only seniors with high or very high care needs are eligible for long-term care in Ontario. Prior to that, residents had a mix of low to very high care needs. This shift is mostly due to the province’s “aging-at-home” strategy which aims to allow seniors to remain in the current dwellings for as long as possible—a positive push in the right direction. However this has made long-term care all the more important and in need of proper resources to function properly. According to a study done by the Ontario Long-Term Care Association in 2018, 85% of long-term care residents need extensive help with daily activities and 90% have some form of cognitive impairment. Around 40% suffer from some form of mood disorder, including depression.

Regardless of whether I was dealing with long-term care or the lower maintenance of a nursing home or retirement community, the need for valuable and worthwhile entertainment in these settings was worth questioning.

Was it needed? Would it make a difference?

These questions came to a head when I teamed up with a theatre company in Toronto that specializes in bringing professional music theatre directly to seniors in the comfort of their residencies – Smile Theatre. My ego had deflated quite a bit by then and I was no longer driven to mimic the career of a comedy legend. I worked with Smile to re-envision my Jerry Lewis show. I scrapped the routines I wanted to do and began including the pieces I knew residents would love. Pulling from a repertoire of songs that included Al Jolson, Cole Porter and Dean Martin, my singing catalogue expanded, providing a much needed soundtrack to an otherwise drab afternoon of entertainment. The act changed from an impersonation gimmick to a story-telling concert that allowed me to guide my audience on a trip down memory lane. The pay-off was huge. Residents would sing along with me and nod knowingly as I told stories about the world of comedy in the 1940s. It gave me the opportunity to connect and interact with my audience in a way the show hadn’t allowed me to do before.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis

At one show, a woman got up to leave during a flood of storytelling I was in the middle of. She walked across my ‘stage’ with her walker, stopping to reach out to me.

“I’m sorry I have to go,” she said, in front of everyone, “Will you be back next Wednesday?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“I really liked your music,” she continued. We proceeded to have a conversation in front of 35 other residents. Once she left, I continued on with the show. Interruptions like that no longer bothered me.

At one point in my new-and-improved show, I sang Jerry Lewis’ emotional telethon anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” One resident nodded as I sang, staring at the ground with tears welling up in his eyes. He was somewhere else in his mind. At the end of the show, as I was packing up my things and my audience mingled, that resident had quietly moved to a grand piano in the corner of the room where he began playing the song from memory.

It can be an incredibly beautiful thing performing for the elderly. I’m embracing it more and more, checking my ego at the door and instead doing my absolute best to provide a service for them. Whereas I once was solely focused on making a name for myself and furthering my career, I now look at how I can use my talents and skills to make a difference; in this case, a difference in the lives of seniors. Whenever we perform, we are in some way, providing a service whether it be to simply entertain or to provoke and ignite discussion. Performing for the elderly is simply taking that next step in the art-form of giving.

I encourage those working in homes to look at their budgets and find creative ways to bring their residents entertainment and activities that will continue to enrich and inspire their lives—and I encourage more people my age to dive in and bring their talents to a home near them. It will be more rewarding than you can imagine. If that man at the grand piano was any indication, providing seniors with entertainment they might not normally have access to can, in some cases, connect them with their past and enrich their present in profound and fulfilling ways; a form of natural medicine that can have powerful effects on the lives of those we care for.

***

Back to that retirement home in Hamilton, I entered the common area where I would be performing and began to set up. A resident sidled up to me with her walker.

“Are you going to be singing songs for us today?” she asked.

“Kind of,” I responded. “Do you remember Jerry Lewis, the comedian?”

“Oh yes,” she said, her eyes lighting up, “I saw him and Dean Martin perform in Maple Leaf Gardens when I was a teenager. He heckled me when I got up to use the bathroom. Oh, I was so embarrassed. I’ll never forget it.”

The residents settled in their seats as I changed into my tux. The program coordinator introduced me to a tepid sound that might have been applause.

I stepped up to the microphone:

“Let’s travel back in time.”

Written By

Nicholas is a writer, performer and public speaker who has made a career out of growing up in the wrong era. He has directed two feature films and been heavily involved in various charities. When he’s not working on his craft he spends his days wondering what it might have been like to have been a 1940s crooner.