That's Amore: A Son Remembers Dean Martinby Ricci Martin, Christopher Smith
As fascination with the Rat Pack thrives in films and on television, Dean Martin remains one of the group's most enigmatic members. The Hollywood image of Dean Martin with a martini in one hand and a woman in the other continues to dominate public perception. Now, Dean's son Ricci reveals the husband and father few people knew, a man who hated parties, adored his
As fascination with the Rat Pack thrives in films and on television, Dean Martin remains one of the group's most enigmatic members. The Hollywood image of Dean Martin with a martini in one hand and a woman in the other continues to dominate public perception. Now, Dean's son Ricci reveals the husband and father few people knew, a man who hated parties, adored his mother-in-law, and found utter contentment in a slice of buttered bread. In That's Amore: A Son Remembers Dean Martin, Ricci Martin takes readers on a tour through his childhood, from the star-studded parties to the exploration of "three marriages, eight kids, one family," to the treasured one-on-one time he shared with his father. He also discusses Dean's first meeting with Jerry Lewis and divulges his father's version of the Martin and Lewis breakup. Ricci Martin addresses the key relationships in his father's life, allowing readers to view the Rat Pack years, "The Dean Martin Show," and Dean's divorce from Jeanne through a son's eyes. That's Amore reveals the triumphs, tragedies, and escapades that colored Ricci's childhood, including his brother Dean Paul's death. More than 100 photos from the private Martin family album enhance Ricci Martin's portrait of his father, creating a complete, honest picture of the Rat Pack legend.
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A famous French statesman once said that a married man with a family will do anything for money. But just at the point Dad's bread-winning had to cover a wife and seven kids, assorted relatives, in-laws and a nanny, all under one roof in Beverly Hills, he tore up his guaranteed paycheck and walked away from Jerry Lewis.
I was too young to remember the split, and Dad only spoke of it many years later. When I was born in the fall of 1953, Dad and Jerry were firmly cemented as major celebrities, and my birth as the second son of Dean and Jeanne Martin received a fair amount of publicity in the Hollywood gossip columns and magazines.
The coverage was fueled by Dad's fame -- the latest and, ultimately, one of the best Martin-Lewis movies titled "The Caddy" had just been released, as had Dad's eventual hit song, "That's Amore." But it also reflected public interest in whether Mom and Dad were back together for good as the Martin family. Earlier in the year, Dad had briefly moved out of the house after an argument with Mom, an upshot of some of the frustration he was having in his professional relationship with Jerry.
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were a Hollywood hit machine, spinning out 16 films in the span of seven years, beginning with "My Friend Irma" in 1949 and ending with "Hollywood or Bust" in 1956. All their films shared two things: they were hugely popular with audiences and were built on the same basic storyline.
Dad would play the suave rapscallion in pursuit of romance or riches, only to be done in by Jerry's slapstick bungling and man-child charm. Whether the routine was transposed to Martin and Lewis as soldiers, sailors, artists, busboys, circus workers, or cowboys, it produced big laughs.
Behind the scenes, things were anything but joyous. Dad and Jerry had met by chance in 1946, and many decades later, at one of our dinners at La Famiglia, Dad would relate to me the circumstances of that first encounter. He and Jerry were both playing a nightclub and Jerry went on before Dad, doing an act that involved lip-synching to records that played on a phonograph backstage.
Dad said he happened to be sitting at side stage one night while Jerry was doing his act, and Dad looked to his right and saw the phonograph that provided the songs for Jerry to mimic. "Rico, I just took my finger and moved the needle on the record," Dad would grin in telling me the story. "The record skipped and the kid just flipped." Jerry was stunned, glancing back at Dad with a look like, "What the hell do you think you are doing?" But the crowd loved it and Dad continued to bounce the needle periodically through the rest of Jerry's routine, the audience going nuts with Jerry's exaggerated look of alarm at each snafu.
Then it was Dad's turn on stage, and Jerry decided it was time for payback. While Dad was crooning his songs, Jerry grabbed a platter and a towel from a waiter, and noisily jostled his way in front of Dad, from one side of the stage to the other, directly blocking the audiences' view. Again, the antics left the crowd in stitches.
Afterward, Dad went down to Jerry's dressing room. Jerry was not even being paid for his act at the club while Dad was earning $50 a night. Dad told me that he suggested that he and Jerry develop a little routine like they had done that night, and Dad would split his $50 with him. Jerry was grateful and they began the classic back-and-forth comedy act that landed them on the very first Ed Sullivan TV show. In 1952 they were nominated for an Emmy as best comedians and won a special award from Photoplay magazine for their film work the same year. They were America's funniest duo.
Mom still has a dog-eared clipping of a Hollywood magazine story about our celebrated move into the house at 601. In the staged storyline that was common at the time, Mom and Dad were showing their new home to Jerry and his wife Patti. There are photos of Jerry clowning around in the closets, sticking his head in the refrigerator, falling over the lawn furniture. Typical slapstick stuff, all part of the Martin and Lewis bag of gags.
But the smiles on the faces of Dad and Mom as they toured their new house with Jerry look strained, giving away some of the tension beneath the surface. Although they ruled Hollywood as bosom buddies -- in 1952, Martin and Lewis were rated as the top box-office draw by movie house owners, falling to number two in 1953 and 1954 behind Gary Cooper and John Wayne, respectively -- Dad's partnership with Jerry was steadily deteriorating.
And all the mugging for the camera, trying to show the fans that they were all one big happy group checking out Dean's new digs, couldn't hide it.
Dad seldom mentioned their relationship as I grew up, but not once did I ever hear him speak ill of Jerry. The characters they played in their movies and in their nightclub act seem like a fair reflection of their true selves, opposites to the core.
Dad was self-assured, confident and, while he certainly appreciated adoration, he didn't need critical acclaim to feel successful. He enjoyed making movies, but his first love was singing. He had followed "That's Amore" with the number one smash "Memories Are Made of This" in late 1955.
Jerry, in those early years, at times seemed wound tighter than a dollar Duncan yo-yo. Movies were his preferred medium and Jerry wanted to do films that evoked deeper feeling than the light-hearted comedy of which they were kings.
And Jerry seemed to want more warmth and compassion from their partnership than Dad provided. With seven kids at home already, no way was Dad up to being anyone else's father figure.
While Dad was able to brush off Jerry's periodic tantrums, he bristled when Jerry suggested that Mom was coming between them, threatening the future of America's biggest comedy duo. Jerry seemed to be jealous of Mom and resented Dad's desire to spend more time with his family. At the same time, Jerry's ego grew and he began to twist the partnership into a dictatorship.
For Dad, the final straw came in the spring of 1956, when he and Jerry argued about Dad's role in their next picture, over which Jerry had assumed creative control. The standard routine this time would portray Jerry as a lost little boy and Dad as a street cop who befriends him.
Dad balked at wearing a policeman's uniform in the movie, suggesting to Jerry instead that he play the part as a detective and dress in suit clothes. Jerry refused, and expected Dad to follow his orders, just as everyone else did what Jerry told them to do. Dad would later tell me that he felt it was ironic that their partnership turned to this totalitarian regime of Jerry's, after they had started out their stardom with Dad's offer to Jerry to join his act and split the pay.
Dad turned his back and walked away from Jerry that day, never to work with him on a movie again. There was a touch of an old Italian code of honor in what Dad did, cutting off all ties to someone who has betrayed you in a way that cannot be forgiven. After that, it was as if Jerry had never existed. Dad closed that chapter of his life with a finality that would be repeated only rarely.
Although the common refrain in the entertainment industry was that Martin was nothing without Lewis, Dad ended their partnership without blinking. Jerry made some public criticisms of Dad after their split, and Dad refused to retaliate -- except when Jerry went so far as to write a magazine article blaming my Mom for the breakup of the popular duo.
Dad had viewed his partnership with Jerry as a business arrangement, not a marriage. He didn't understand why Jerry was launching personal attacks on his wife in public. When a TV interviewer asked him about Jerry's magazine piece, Dad said he felt Jerry had no reason to vent his emotional venom on Mom.
Just like a divorce, the breakup with Jerry was expensive. They had to settle contracts for movies that wouldn't be made and nightclub appearances that would never happen. At the same time, the first of several remodeling projects had gotten underway at 601 Mountain, expanding the house to include rooms for Craig, Claudia, Gail, and Deana.
In the final years of the partnership, Jerry had gravitated toward directing and producing movies, and as a result, he had several offers following his break with Dad, most of which involved grafting a new straight man into Dad's standard role while Jerry continued to play the goofy foil.
Dad, on the other hand, didn't easily fly solo under the old Abbott and Costello formula. The first movie he made in 1957 without Jerry, "Ten Thousand Bedrooms," was a flop. Jerry's lost-kid-and-the-cop comedy came out at the same time and was a hit.
In debt and desperate, Dad agreed to several business deals on the side in the hopes something big would come along to re-ignite his career. He sold his name to a restaurant and bar on Sunset, which became famous as "Dino's Lodge."
Dino's was frequently featured as the next door neighbor to the fictitious office used by the private detectives in the popular TV series "77 Sunset Strip," a show which had regulars cast as Dino's maitre d' and parking lot attendant. Dad seldom if ever ate at Dino's, and disagreements with the restaurant's partners over the use of his name and likeness as the restaurant was franchised led to a lawsuit, headaches and regrets over the decision.
And the more Dad tried to distance himself from Jerry, the more Jerry seemed to be everywhere. At one time, we heard that Jerry was trying to build his own restaurant across the street from Dino's. Later, when Dad entered the movie studio lot, he noticed an office building under construction. "It's for Jerry," he was told. There was a fancy golf cart, with lights, chrome, and every option imaginable at the studio lot for Jerry to get around.
While Dad had been the singing half of their duo, it was Jerry who scored a top 10 hit in 1956 with a silly rendition of "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody."
Finally, Dad heard Jerry was taking up golf. Funny how things work out.
As children, we were oblivious to the clouds on Dad's horizon. If any of it concerned him, it was never manifested at home. He was the same, loving caring father who had an easy sense of humor. When a Lucky Strike cigarette ad would flash on television, we would ask him what the advertising slogan "LSMFT" meant, knowing full well it stood for "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco."
Taking the set-up, he would explain the true meaning of LSMFT: "Let's Suck My Father's Toes." Later in life, Dad would pull the same corny routines with his grandchildren. I remember driving in the car sometime in the 1980s with Dad, Mom, Gina and Dean-Paul's young son, Alexander, when Dad spotted an airline billboard and explained to Alexander: "TWA: Teeny, Weenie Airlines." Simple and silly, we would laugh and so would he. That was just Dad.
I suspect like many fathers, playing with his children was a release from career pressures for Dad. One afternoon, Dean-Paul and I each built forts at opposite ends of the back yard at 601 and then filled small plastic bags from the kitchen with flour -- "flour bombs," we called them. We squared off behind our respective barricades and began lobbing the flour bombs back and forth when Dad came home. Seeing the exchange underway, he quickly jumped behind my fort, knelt down and began chucking the powdery grenades. By the time our ammunition was exhausted, we all were covered in flour.
He loved to horseplay and wrestle with us kids, rolling around on the living room carpet. One of the things I remember most about those times is the smell of his cologne, "Woodhue" by Faberge. That fragrance, a clean, crisp smell, was a big part of who Dad was.
When we grew older, my brother Craig and I used Woodhue, but it never smelled the same as it did on Dad. Eventually, Faberge quit making Woodhue -- Dad and Cary Grant were the only famous people who were using the cologne at the time and the company had continued making it until Cary's death because he had been a major investor in the company. Craig and I rationed what was left of our bottles and I remember mentioning to Dad how it never smelled the same on me as it did on him.
"That's because you're putting it on wrong," he smiled. He told me to put a couple of drops of water in my hands along with the Woodhue, and pat the milky colored mixture on my neck.
After 15 or 20 years of wearing the stuff, I had finally learned the secret of Dad's smell. Later, I told Craig the proper technique Dad had discovered from putting the cologne on while he was still wet from the shower, and Craig said, "Awww, now he tells us." I was down to my last quarter inch of the extinct scent when I learned Dad's technique, and have never been able to find the cologne since.
The fragrance was not the only distinctive thing about those afternoon wrestling matches with Dad. While he was certainly able to fend off our attacks -- he briefly had been a prizefighter in his youth, nicknamed "Kid Crocetti" -- there was one move he absolutely forbade. One day, Dean-Paul put a pretty good headlock on him and Dad reared up and said, "Whoa, pallie, not the throat, not the throat.
"You see all this?" he said, motioning to the furniture, the house, the tennis court and swimming pool outside. "Stay away from the throat." We understood the message.
It wasn't Dad's singing that would yield his big break in this post-Martin and Lewis stage of his career, however. He was in a hotel room on Sunset Strip when he got the call that he had won the part of a rebellious soldier in the 1958 war drama "The Young Lions" opposite Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. It was a role that he offered to do for less money than any other film he had been in, just to prove he was more than a comedic straight man.
It became one of the biggest movies of the year and critics still call it one of the best World War II films ever made. It was nominated for three technical Oscars -- music, sound, and cinematography -- and helped legitimize Dad as a versatile movie star, showing that his fans would accept him in serious roles as well as the madcap comedies. He went on to other dramatic roles, in films such as "Toys In The Attic" and "Ada."
Besides the movie success, 1958 also was a good year for Dad on radio and television. "Return To Me," spent 18 weeks on the best-selling record charts, peaking at number four. In the summer, "Angel Baby" and "Volare" climbed simultaneously in to the top 30.
NBC would air a special "The Dean Martin Show" in color in 1958, the forerunner of what would become Dad's signature weekly TV variety show premiering six years later. And Dad's next movie, "Some Came Running" with Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine, would be released in 1958, picking up five Oscar nominations the following year, including a Best Actress nomination for Shirley.
At the edge of the abyss, Dad had built a Golden Gate Bridge. For the next 15 years he would ride high on his singing, acting and entertaining talents. Yet with all the demands of his superstar status, I hardly remember him not being home as I grew up. I remember him always being there.
Indeed, throughout the period of Dad's split with Jerry, his struggles financially and then taking his career to a new level, we remained a nuclear family, insulated from the melodrama and hype. At least until his TV show began in 1965, we all had what seemed to be a very normal childhood.
Granted, Dad would go off and do his Vegas show twice a year for six weeks each time. And, if he had a movie that required him to be out of town, he'd be gone another six weeks. Because of the gallivanting image he had in the early movies and then later crystallized with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, I think people have this image of him never being home. Instead, he tended to treat his stardom as any 9-to-5 job. Actually, it was more like an 8-to-4 job.
Dad was a habitually early riser. We would never see him in the morning, only smell his Woodhue and see the remnants of his toast and coffee -- his standard breakfast. For most of his adult life, Dad was up at 6 a.m., showered, shaved, dressed, having eaten his toast and coffee, and was out the door by 7 a.m. Regardless of whether his day called for shooting a movie, recording a song or playing a couple of rounds of golf, that was his routine. We kids were going to school and had to be to class by 8:30 a.m., so we were rising at about 7:30 in the morning. I believe he enjoyed that quiet moment in the morning, alone in the kitchen, before the house erupted in the hubbub of kids and chores and errands. We would be home from school at 3:30 in the afternoons and Dad would usually roll in before 5. If he was between Vegas shows and movie productions, he would be golfing. I never knew how he got started playing the game, but he loved it. If it was rainy -- which was rare in Beverly Hills -- he would play gin rummy with his friends at either the Bel Air or Riviera country clubs.
Invariably, though, he would be home for dinner, abiding by Mom's request that the entire family eat together. Dad would come into the house, grab his bread, go upstairs and shower, and be down for dinner around the big table in the dining room.
By now, my brother Craig, Dad's oldest son, had moved out of the house to join the military and had been stationed in Germany. As we had grown up, the house had grown out. Dean-Paul and I moved into the bedroom of the three older girls, Claudia, Gail, and Deana, who had moved to their new wing over the garage. Our old bedroom was remodeled for Gina. At one point, I relocated my bed to the hallway outside of Gina's bedroom for about two years, after my frustration of Dean-Paul ordering me around. This was in the days before television remote controls, and somehow he thought it was my job to change channels.
Mobilizing six children from such far-flung confines was always an act of persistence on my mother's part, but she managed to assemble us each evening around the table, where Dad would be seated at the head.
He certainly didn't preside over dinner, however. He used to mutter to Mom during dinner, "Not a straight man in the group," as we would tease, rib, and cut-up, a sort of juvenile version of one of Dad's later celebrity roasts. There was a lot of goofing around and Dad would observe, "Too many chiefs and not enough Indians."
Those nightly dinners of us entertaining Dad with impromptu one-liners were probably not that much different from the act that he and his other, older "pallies" -- Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop -- were perfecting on the stage of the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. During Dad's twice-yearly engagements, there were times where Mom packed us all up and took us to Las Vegas. It was one of the few places we ever went as a family, besides Palm Springs. We spent every Easter in Palm Springs, at a house Mom and Dad also bought in 1954 for $40,000. It was a quaint cottage that came completely furnished -- to this day, Mom still has the vintage pink blender that came with the house. Trips to Vegas and Palm Springs were the only family vacations I remember. We never visited Dad's hometown in Ohio or Mom's former home in Florida, simply because most of their families had moved to California to be near us.
Although my Mom and Dad had spent their honeymoon on The Strip, she told me in later years that she loathed Las Vegas. It wasn't that she didn't mind having the family all together while Dad worked his routine on the showroom stage at the Sands and later the Riviera each night, it was just that in those days, there was absolutely nothing to do in Las Vegas if you didn't golf or gamble.
And for kids, Las Vegas was painfully boring. There was always tennis -- Dean-Paul was an excellent player and later turned pro -- but chasing the ball across a clay court in the searing Las Vegas afternoon was an invitation to heatstroke. Sure, there was a pool, but we had a pool and a tennis court at home so the novelty quickly wore off.
The hotel had room service, and because of Dad's top billing status, we could order anything we wanted. But after a couple days, we tired of that perk as well. The truth was, if you weren't working in Las Vegas, it wasn't that fun.
Dad, naturally, seemed to be having a lot of fun while he was working. As if by accident, the Rat Pack conquered Vegas, epitomizing an era and founding a pop culture dynasty in the desert of dimes.
Meet the Author
Ricci Martin is the youngest son of Dean and Jeanne Martin. That's Amore is his first book. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. Christopher Smith is an award-winning journalist and the Washington D.C. Correspondent for the Salt Lake Tribune. He lives in McLean, Virginia.
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