With today being the anniversary of his death, let us remember one of the greatest artists of show business, the “king of cool”, Dean Martin. He came from humble beginnings out of the small city of Steubenville, in Ohio, to become one of the most important showbiz stars and figures of the twentieth century. He was truly an unflappable man, even when everybody thought he would fizzle after his split with Jerry Lewis, to confound critics and rise out of the fall out with Lewis, to wow audiences in Vegas and across the country; and begin what would become a successful solo film and television career. When people generally talk about Dean Martin, most people recall his amazing singing voice, charm and mystique. Many of his closest friends and fans alike have also commented about how wonderful his sense of humour was, including that infectious and irresistible smile. Though it is fair to say, lets not forget about his party boy antics, drinking and womanizing that, for better or worse, contributed to his unequalled aura.
Born in Steubenville, Ohio, on June 7th, 1917, Dean Martin (Dino Paul Crocetti), grew up in a close-knit Italian community that acted like a big extended family. Being the son of Italian immigrants, Italian was also the only language he spoke until he was about five. Though once he stated school, he soon realised that he had to master a new one- English. This author can definitely relate to the challenge of learning English as a second language, as Martin did in his youth. Like Martin, I developed a slow and easily style of speaking, but unlike Martin, it didn’t remain with me the rest of my life.
The hardship of finding his place in school and learning English would subside and as he matured in his teens, he soon realised he had an amazing natural talent for singing. This new passion gave him inspiration to pursue a career in singing at the age of seventeen, in Ohio nightclubs. (Anything it seemed was better, he thought, than being a milkman or a gas station attendant). Soon enough, people began to pay attention to him as he successfully engaged with his audiences. His natural charm on stage also put people at ease and his sense of humour helped too. Though, the salary as a nightclub singer wasn’t enough to keep him financially content. Martin would have to dabble in a host of illegal activities to supplement is income by running errands, dealing cards and bootlegging.
His big break would eventually come in 1939, when he would be offered a full-time job as the lead singer in Sammy Walkin’s orchestral band. Changing his name in 1940 from Dino Paul Crocetti to Dean Martin was also all part of the fairy tale that had begun to unfold. By the early 1940’s, Martin had signed an exclusive deal with a record label; and was singing the romantic songs we would all association with Dean Martin.
Though, it would be in the early part of 1945 that his world would be turned on its head, when he would be introduced to a zany, young, skinny kid named Jerry Lewis in midtown Manhattan, New York City. The two would hit it off instantly, but it wouldn’t be until the two met up at the same nightclub engagement in 1946 that further sparks would fly. They began fooling around together in their respective acts, which in the end developed into the riotous slapstick gags and routines, we would become so familiar with during the course of their ten-year partnership. During the period between 1946 and 1956, they were the biggest stars in showbiz history. They would also go onto make sixteen films together with Martin playing the smooth romantic lead with the singing voice of an angel and Lewis the clownish, ever energetic live wire.
Dean Martin played the straight man to Jerry Lewis goofball persona in all of their films together. Here is a scene from At War With The Army 1950.
No one imagined that it would all end one day as badly as it did for Martin and Lewis, expect maybe Dean Martin? He had become disillusioned by the rise and success Jerry was receiving and Dean thought it was best for his own sanity and career, that he move on and venture out on his own. As soon as the dust had settled on the fallout that was Martin and Lewis, everyone expected Martin to stall and fail miserably. He surprised everyone including his greatest skeptics and returned to what he loved best. On March 6th, 1957, Dean Martin opened at the Sands Hotel Copa Room in Las Vegas (see header image) and wowed the audience with his new routine and persona. He played a loveable exuberant playboy singer with a cigarette and glass in almost always in hand. To many, his act was indistinguishable from the real Dean Martin, yet Martin always claimed his act was based on a drunk he played in the film The Stooge with Jerry Lewis. Nevertheless, his success in Vegas would lead to him playing variations of this act for the next thirty years.
But beneath the cool exterior that was Dean Martin, he was anxious and miserable. His personal affairs were all over the place as he initially struggled with life after Lewis. He so needed a ‘hit’ movie to relaunch his acting career. But more than anything he also wanted to be taken seriously as an actor. In Deana Martin’s book Memories are made of this (2004), she says that, “Dad said later that the two greatest turning points of his career were meeting Jerry Lewis and leaving Jerry Lewis.” She would also surmise that he later said that he became a real actor because of those two things. With a little bit of luck, he did as he found critical success in the film The Young Lions with Marlon Brando in 1958. (He would, of course, go onto make some thirty films without jerry Lewis. Some of my favourite Dean Martin movies are Rio Bravo (1959), Oceans 11 (1960 ) and Who was that Lady (1960), in which he would receive a Golden Globe nomination for best comedy actor.) It was also around this time that he became associated with the legendary group known as the Rat Pack. The group included some of Martin’s personal friends, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford. His association with this group forever cemented his reputation as one of the ‘coolest’ guy in showbiz, if not the world.
Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra sit around in this scene from Oceans 11 (1960). They were known together as The Rat Pack.
As a solo act he would also enjoy immense success over the years, appearing for example on his own television series the Dean Martin Show; and he always managed to churn out a new album and hit single every now and then. Some of my favourites songs and they might be yours too, are That’s Amore, Memories Are Made of This, Your Nobody Til Somebody Loves You, Volare and Return To Me.
I would like to conclude by returning now back to the beginning of this article, where I first mention that today, Christmas Day, is the anniversary of his death. Dean Martin on this day in 1995, died quietly of acute respiratory failure from complications of being diagnosed with cancer in his Beverley Hills home in the early hours of the morning. Even though it has now almost been twenty years since his death and regardless of the fact that his impact was felt more in a bygone era, his legacy still lives on today, very much so every time we turn on a radio station or sit down to watch a Martin and Lewis movie. His songs have often also featured as soundtracks to films like Moonstruck and more importantly to our lives. Finally, it is only fitting that we are reminded that apart from his stage and on screen legend and singing ability, he was also an enthusiastic golfer, a humble humanitarian, a co founder of the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon and an activist against racial intolerance.
Related Article: Are You Too Cool For Martin and Lewis? Not Me !
The quote by Deana Martin is from the book by Deana Martin with Wendy Holden, Memories Are Made of This: Dean Martin Through His Daughter’s Eyes, Sidwick & Jackson, 2004, p.58.
Photo Credit: The header image is Dean Martin opening at the Sands Hotel Copa Room in Las Vegas on March 6th, 1957. The image is courtesy of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, University Libraries. The movie still image of the film At War With The Army (1950) is courtesy of Paramount Pictures. The movie still image of Ocean’s 11 (1960) is courtesy of Warner Bros. I make use of both images under the rational of fair use to highlight two examples of the body of work Dean Martin took part in. It also enables me to makes an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone.