The other day, I came across my typewritten transcript of an interview I did with my great-uncle, the entertainer Ted Lewis, after he turned 80 in 1970.
I was a young reporter for United Press International in New York when I interviewed Uncle Ted in his apartment on Central Park West at 72nd Street in Manhattan.
Ted Lewis was a big star in his time – a top bandleader during The Jazz Age of the 1920s, a showman who appeared dozens of times in TV shows and movies. His trademarks were a battered top hat, the opening line, “Is everybody happy?” and the songs When My Baby Smiles at Me and Me and My Shadow.
We talked for an hour or so. Of course, only a small fraction of his words, the most newsworthy ones, wound up in my story for UPI-client newspapers .
Nowadays, writing Life Stories, I am more interested in a fuller picture of my famous uncle, to share with surviving family members and long-devoted fans.
So, today, on the 127th anniversary of his birth, here are some cherished quotes from my interview in December 1970:
“I’m very proud of my hometown (Circleville, Ohio). Of course, I wasn’t before I left there, because my people were very embarrassed to have me leave town while my brothers all stayed and were graduates of Ohio State University. I used to run away from home all the time. At 16 years old, I was a spieler for a girlie-girlie show at a county fair.”
“Since 1906, I’ve been through every phase of show business.
I’ve been with what they used to call street carnivals, sold cotton candy, blew up gas balloons, slept with the other roustabouts around the carnival.”
“After the opening number (at Rector’s restaurant, on Broadway, in 1916) something told me to say, ‘Is everybody happy?’ – and the house came down, everybody started to applaud. I was making 90 bucks a week and doing wonderful. We were living in a furnished apartment on 109th Street and Mrs. Lewis did all the cooking, made the beds and cleaned the house. I went to work every night from 9 until 1.”
“W.C. Fields taught me many of my hat tricks. I’m using the same top hat since 1916 – and it was secondhand when I got it. And this hat has been stitched, re-stitched, and double-lined and relined, and sewed – I don’t think a piece of the original hat is left. The brim is so feeble it’s hard to do anything with it at all. But I still use the same old high hat and clarinet – my second clarinet – which is about 35 or 40 years old.”
“When I walk down 72nd Street to Broadway, it’s like being in my home town in Circleville. Everybody says, ‘How are you, Ted? Hello, boy, how are you?’ It gives you a wonderful feeling that people haven’t forgotten you no matter how many years you’ve been away.”
“I want another five years of living. I’ll settle for two, but I’d like to have five.”
What do you want to do in those five years?
“I want to repent for the terrible sins done in the past 60 years.” He laughed.
My Uncle Ted didn’t make it through another year. He died August 25, 1971 at the age of 81.