Jerry Lewis at the Paradise

I was working in the film industry; I had a job as an usher at the Paradise theatre in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. The Paradise lobby swept up and curved away from the entrance and concession bar with deep, plush carpet. On the curved, floor-to-ceiling, wood-paneled wall hung commemorative Oscar plaques. In the single-screen hall, three sections of long-rowed seats angled down to a large screen, edged with maroon velvet curtains. With its high ceilings, faux boxes, and loge seats in the rear, the Paradise was a swank place.

The Paradise still featured sneak previews, where most tickets were gifted to ensure a full house. The previewed films were not yet released, were still being edited. The previews helped build hype and advertising while giving the editors a live-audience reaction to think about before a final edit.

One spectacular South Bay evening we were showing a new Jerry Lewis film. We rolled the red carpet out the door and across the broad sidewalk all the way to the curb, and Jerry Lewis emerged slim from a shiny black stretch limo, wearing flat-black tuxedo pants with enamel-black stripes down each leg, and a blinding white shirt under a candy-apple red, button-down sweater. His shiny, thin, black loafers matched the jet-black sheen of his short hair, spiked just above the forehead.

After the standard brouhaha welcoming him and his entourage, Jerry was seated in the last seat in the last row in the middle section of the hall. The lights went down and the movie began to a quiet, full house, and ShaZAM!

When the movie came on I was standing at attention, my flashlight in hand, at the end of a far aisle, and I rocked back on my feet when the first wave of sound hit me. Jerry had requested he be specially wired in his seat to control the volume, but something must have gone wrong. I hurried out the door for the lobby where I met the manager and two other ushers. It didn’t take long for patrons from the first few rows to come back complaining. They wanted the volume turned down. All we could offer was a complimentary ticket to a future show; Jerry Lewis was controlling the sound, and he wanted it loud.

About half way through the movie, the first few rows having thinned out but the remaining audience seemingly satisfied, I stood in the back of the lobby against the Oscar wall, and Jerry came out to smoke a cigarette. He stood about twelve feet away from me. We were the only ones in the lobby at the moment. He smoked, relaxed, inscrutable. The sound of the movie occasionally seeped out of the hall into the usually quiet lobby. I watched him smoke. I had just returned from active duty; in fact, I was wearing my low-quarters, my name and military ID number sewn under the tongues. I was surfing my days away, waiting for the new semester to start at school, and ushering nights at the Paradise. I could have said something to Jerry. He was a nice guy. I could have asked him why so loud, but I knew the answer to that, and I left him to his smoke.

I had been at the Paradise only a couple of weeks. The next day, Sunday, I arrived early to work the matinee. The manager gave me the job of scraping chewing gum off the bottom of the seats, before the doors opened. I stood in the back row, at the seat Jerry had sat in the night before. I looked across the long row. I looked down the formation of empty seats to the white screen. I walked out of the hall up to the usher dressing room, changed back into my street clothes, leaving my low-quarters behind, and walked back out into the solid gold South Bay weekend. I never went back to the Paradise, never recovered my low-quarters. I heard one of the other ushers was wearing them. A few years later the theatre was closed and converted into office space.