Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The 100th Anniversary of Dean Martin's Birth

I think it is safe to say that my family were Dean Martin fans. When I was little every Thursday night my father would pop popcorn, we would open sodas, and we would gather around the television set to watch The Dean Martin Show. We watched his movies as well, everything from the films he made with former partner Jerry Lewis to the ones he made with such stars as Frank Sinatra and John Wayne. My family may not have agreed on everything, but we were united in our love for Dean Martin. Indeed, Dean Martin has remained one of my favourite performers to this day. It was 100 years ago today that Dino was born.

Dean Martin was born Dino Paul Crocetti in Steubenville, Ohio on June 7 1917. His parents were Italian immigrants, and young Dino did not speak English until he began attending school when he was 5 years old. As a teenager he began playing drums. When he was in 10th grade he dropped out of Stebenville High School and worked a variety of jobs, from being a croupier in a speakeasy to working in a steel mill. He also sang with local bands, billing himself as "Dino Martini". He got his big break when he began singing with  the Ernie McKay Orchestra. In the early 1940s he started singing with Sammy Watikins's band. It was Mr. Watkins who suggested he change his stage name to "Dean Martin".

Dean Martin's singing career would be interrupted in 1944 when he was drafted into the United States Army. He served for a year in Akron, Ohio, but was eventually given a medical discharge because of a double hernia. After leaving the Army Dean Martin returned to singing. He was doing well enough performing in clubs on the East Coast that he attracted the attention of both MGM and Columbia Pictures, although neither signed him to a contract at the time. It was in 1945 that Dean Martin met comedian Jerry Lewis at the Glass Hat Club in New York City, where they were both performing. The two made their debut as a comedy team at the 500 Club in Atlantic City on July 25 1946.

Martin and Lewis's first performance was not particularly well received. The two then threw out their scripted gags in favour of improvisation. They soon proved to be very popular at the 500 Club, so much so that they were in demand all along the East Coast. It was not long before  the team began appearing on television and radio. Martin and Lewis appeared on the very first edition of Toast of the Town, later retitled The Ed Sullivan Show. They got their own radio show on NBC, The Martin and Lewis Show, which ran from April 1949 to July 1953. They appeared on such television shows as Texaco Star Theatre, The Saturday Night Revue, and The Colgate Comedy Hour. Naturally, Hollywood took notice of the team. In 1949, the same year that their radio show debuted, Paramount signed Martin and Lewis to a contract. Making their film debut in My Friend Irma in 1949, Martin and Lewis appeared in several movies until 1956, including At War With the Army (1950), Scared Stiff (1953), and Artists and Models (1955).

Even while he was working with Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin had a successful recording career. His 1949 single  "Powder Your Face with Sunshine (Smile, Smile, Smile)" went to no. 10 on the Billboard chart. His 1950 single "I'll Always Love You" went to no. 11. His 1953 recording of "That's Amore" went all the way to no. 2. In 1955 he hit no. 1 with his single "Memories Are Made of This".

While Martin and Lewis had proven successful as a team on television, on radio, and in films, their relationship gradually began to fall apart as the Fifties progressed. Dean Martin left the team ten years exactly after they had first performed together, on July 25 1956. Sadly, the two would not speak to each other privately for another twenty years.

If anything, Dean Martin would prove even more successful on his own than he had with Jerry Lewis. While his first film without Mr. Lewis, Ten Thousand Bedrooms (1957), failed at the box office, he would appear in a number of successful movies from the late Fifties into the Sixties. He had a box office success as one of the co-stars of The Young Lions (1958). He appeared in his first movie with fellow crooner Frank Sinatra, Some Came Running, in 1958. Mr. Martin even appeared in Westerns. One of his most successful films was opposite John Wayne, Rio Bravo, in 1958. He would co-star with John Wayne again in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). From the late Fifties into the Sixties he would appear in such films as Ocean's 11 (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962), Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), Bandolero! (1968), and Airport (1970). Starting with The Silencers in 1966 Dean Martin appeared as superspy Matt Helm in four movies (in addition to The Silencers, they were Murderers' Row in 1966, The Ambushers in 1967, and The Wrecking Crew in 1969).

Dean Martin's recording career also continue to be strong throughout the late Fifties and Sixties. The year 1958 gave him two of his biggest hits, "Return to Me" and "Volare". In 1964 what may be his best remembered song (at least for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who can remember his TV show) "Everybody Loves Somebody" was released.  He finished out the Sixties with such hits as "You're Nobody till Somebody Loves You" and "I Will".

Of course, Dean Martin had great success on television in the Sixties. He made a rare guest appearance on the Western Rawhide, in the episode "Canliss" in 1964. He also guest starred on several Bob Hope specials, and appeared on The Tonight Show several times. By far his biggest success on television would be The Dean Martin Show. Debuting in 1965, The Dean Martin Show ran until 1974. During the show's final season it featured celebrity roasts as a regular segment. The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts would continue as a series of specials after The Dean Martin Show left the air.  In the Seventies he also guest starred on Charlie's Angels, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, The Big Show, and Vega$. He appeared in the films Something Big (1971), Showdown (1973),  and Mr. Ricco (1975). He did a Christmas special on NBC in 1980.

After the Seventies Dean Martin's career slowed a bit. He continued to record, and even had a minor hit, "Since I Met You Baby", in the Eighties. He appeared in the movies The Cannonball Run (1981) and Cannonball Run II (1984).  He was a regular, playing himself, on the short-live comedy TV series Half-Nelson. He did a stadium tour with Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra in 1988. He performed in Las Vegas for one last time  Bally's Hotel in 1990.

It was in 1993 that Dean Martin was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on Christmas in 1995 at the age of 78.

Dean Martin has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. In fact, last night I even dreamed I met Mr. Martin, dressed in a tuxedo as he would be in a night club act. I told him I was writing a tribute for him on my blog for his 100th birthday and that pleased him. I almost never dream of celebrities, so the fact that I dreamed of Dean Martin on the eve of his 100th birthday demonstrates just how significant he has been in my life. Dean Martin was the first crooner of which I was a fan, even before Bing Crosby. I always thought he was the coolest member of the Rat Pack (although I will confess Sammy Davis Jr. gives him a run for his money on that score). Quite simply, Dean Martin was always one of my favourite singers, comedians, and actors.

Of course, I am not along in my admiration for Dino. Ever since Martin and Lewis emerged on the scene in the late Forties, Dean Martin has had a huge number of fans. To me, at least, the appeal of Dean Martin is not hard to figure out. He had an easy-going, amiable style that made him instantly likeable. He also had a wry sense of humour, and could deliver absolutely hilarious lines with a fairly straight face. He was also one of the greatest crooners around. He had a rich baritone that could be very smooth or bouncy depending upon the song. Dean Martin's style was also very unique. When Dino sang a song, you knew it was Dino.

While Dean Martin began his career as a singer, he would also become an actor. Often his characters were much like his stage persona, that of a slightly drunken, relaxed playboy. That having been said, Dean Martin played a wider variety of roles in film than simply Dean Martin. In Rio Bravo he played Dude, the deputy sheriff who goes from being a drunk to being a competent lawman. In Toys in the Attic he played Julian Berniers, a young man who runs afoul of his spinster sister when he returns to New Orleans. In Airport he played Vernon Demarest, the checkride captain for TGA Flight Two. Surprisingly enough for someone who grew up far from the West, he appeared in several Westerns over the years, including 4 for Texas, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rough Night in Jericho, and others. In fact, aside from Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin may have been the only member of the Rat Pack who was entirely convincing as a Western hero.

Dean Martin has often been called "the King of Cool", a title he shares with Steve McQueen. As big a fan of Steve McQueen as I am, I have to confess that the title might rightfully belong to Dino. Steve McQueen was primarily an action star. On the other hand, Dean Martin could do it all. He could sing. He could do comedy. He could do drama. He could be an action star. And he could do all of these things while he was impeccably dressed. If Dean Martin is still immensely popular on what would have been his 100th birthday, it is perhaps because he was an extremely versatile performer with an easygoing style that pleased audiences. There simply wasn't anyone else quite like him.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

I was obsessed with Dean during my teens. Listened to his albums constantly. (So out of touch with my peers!) Such a smooth and lovely voice, such a marvelous stylist. One of those guys who makes it look so easy. It's a trait I admire.