Hook, Line and Sinker
For pioneering American comedic actor and ground-breaking filmmaker Jerry Lewis, who has dedicated more than 80 years of his life in front of and behind the camera writing, acting and directing, receiving audience admiration has been something that he admits to thriving on. On the flipside of that, however, his downtime with family and his cherished private moments have become even more important, even more poignant, and very much needed. For Jerry, over the past 30 years or so, solace has come in the form of Sam’s Place.
At a modest 19.8m in length, Sam’s Place is not one of the largest yachts on the ocean, but then space wasn’t a primary factor for Jerry when he first bought her in 1989. A lover of boats all his life, he decided to charter one in San Diego and spend a couple of weeks on board with second wife SanDee Pitnick (affectionately known as Sam), as part of their post- wedding honeymoon period of bliss. “It was like a mosquito bit him, and he got the disease again!” says Sam, remembering Jerry’s joy at being on board a boat once again. After running into his long-standing yachting agent during the same trip, they decided it was fate and began the year-long search to find the right yacht, before finally opting for what was to become Sam’s Place, a 1959 Henry Grebe & Sons.
“I absolutely wanted a wooden boat,” says Jerry, “because they sit better in the water, they’re more quiet, and I wanted to put our own personal touches on it where maybe a fibreglass boat wouldn’t allow for that. From the moment we bought her we gutted the entire boat and took everything out.”
Completely redesigning the boat from the ground up to fit his comforts, the few features that were kept were certain unique items that happened to appeal. “There was this beautiful chrome wheel on the bridge that when you turned it, it opened the window – we’d never seen anything like it before, and it’s details like that you just wouldn’t find on a modern boat, so we kept them,” he says. They introduced an array of stunning wood features – teak and mahogany – inside and out, as well as adding all of the required modern day conveniences, such as air conditioning and large televisions in each room (including the head).
Vintage in design, but with contemporary appeal, the family set about enjoying life on board, and using it as a welcome break from the gruelling work schedule that Jerry kept to. Aside from a few special interviews that Jerry opted to do on the aft deck, the yacht became a work-free zone.
“Sam’s Place became our favourite get away, where we could leave the office and business at home, and just go there,” he says. “Very few people had the phone number, especially related to business, and it was a totally shut up world. Our daughter Dani was practically raised on the boat; until she was about school age or slightly later, we would go down to Sam’s Place almost every month, and then spend the entire summer down there too, so it was a bonding place for the three of us.”
Despite being more than capable of riding the high seas, and having crossed the Panama Canal en route to San Diego prior to Jerry acquiring her, Sam’s Place has enjoyed more of a quiet life with the Lewis family, mainly travelling up and down the coast of California, stopping off at Newport, and making the most of time enjoyed in San Diego.
“We were so comfortable in San Diego,” comments Sam. “We would take the boat out for the day, maybe go fishing, and we loved to go over to the Hotel Del Coronado for brunch with a bunch of friends on board, or cruise the harbour,but we didn’t take it long distances, we had no need to. We loved the convenience of being connected to the hotel, we could order room service when we wanted, go to the pool, be catered for by the bellman if there was anything we needed – we were quite spoilt.”
Moored at the Marriott Marquis marina, and often spending a week or two on board without ever leaving the dock, the people and staff around the marina became friends and allies who would “do anything in the world for us”. Protected by a double-gated marina entry, not to mention hotel security, it was refreshing to be able to take the opportunity to relax and watch the world go by.
“The aft deck was the place where we lived. We had a 180-degree panoramic view, and we loved to moor close by to the beautiful park at Seaport Village, and just sit out there – it was so open and so big – and enjoy boats going by, everyone waving,” says Sam. “We had a big television out there, or we would spend our days reading – that was our most special area.”
Having first met on the set of Jerry’s film Hardly Working in 1980, where Sam auditioned as one of the dancers – “he did a silly, funny little vignette with me, and threw me around the dance stage, and from that moment on it was truly like love at first sight” – the couple have been inseparable ever since, travelling together around the world. “When our daughter was growing up it was a challenge to travel everywhere, but we never left Jerry’s side, we travelled as a family,” says Sam. “Not many people get to do that – we made a lot of memories.”
Jerry first stepped onto the stage at the tender age of five, having watched and learned from his parents, both vaudeville performers. His most notable professional partnership was with the late crooner Dean Martin, and their act is still recognised today as one of America’s all-time hottest comedy teams; they spanned a decade together before breaking up in 1956. He has worked tirelessly throughout his life, starring in more than 50 films as the lovable slapstick goon, as well as writing and directing more than 13 films. His enormous fundraising efforts for muscular dystrophy over the past 40 years have seen over $2 billion go to the charity, and seen Jerry himself awarded with an Oscar in 2009 in the form of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, not to mention a 1977 nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In April 2016, Jerry Lewis turned the admirable age of 90. Showing no signs of slowing down, his latest film Max Rose in which he stars is set for release in September this year, the same month that he is engaged to perform in Las Vegas for a weekend, in addition to three engagements in November on the East Coast. To say he is passionate about his career is an understatement. But with the advent of age comes compromise, and sadly for Jerry and the family, that comes in the form of saying a fond farewell to Sam’s Place.
“That boat has been my pride and joy, it’s been our home, but there are so many stairs on board and they’re quite steep, so it just became unsafe for me in the end,” says Jerry. “It’s been a heart-breaking decision to sell, but it’s the logical thing to do. Besides, why let it sit there when someone else could enjoy it.”
Keen to showcase the yacht’s celebrity history, the Lewis family have decided to include a number of personal photos, books and onboard memorabilia with the sale – “I figured that whoever should buy Sam’s Place would probably treasure the fact that it did belong to Jerry Lewis,” says Sam.
And memories made on board have been plentiful, from private birthday celebrations to large parties with 20 cast members from the 1995 Broadway show Damn Yankees which Jerry starred in. Newark-born Jerry Lewis has rightly earned his legendary title as the king of comedy, but will he ever finally stop working? He replies:
“To quote the world-renowned cardiac surgeon, Michael DeBakey, who created the first ever artificial heart, and who always used to say: “If you can find something that I will enjoy more in retirement, then I might consider quitting”.
This article is taken from issue XII of Fraser magazine. To read the magazine, click here.