“It will stiffen you with laughter”
Today is the birthday of the legendary Jerry Lewis impersonator Sammy Petrillo (1934-2007), best known for his one starring movie role, in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952). But first, a little background.
Petrillo (born Patrello, rather a lateral name change), was second generation show biz, his father being a Catskills comedian and dancer, his mother Alice Faye’s double in the movies. He attended New York’s High School for the Performing Arts. He was 15 when Martin and Lewis hit it big on the radio and in movies (1949). The kids at school noticed a resemblance so Petrillo worked up an impression. His family show biz connections got him a meeting with Milton Berle, who got him a meeting with Lewis himself, who got him an agent and employed him on a sketch on the Colgate Comedy Hour. After this, Lewis’s attitude toward Petrillo quickly chilled and he withdrew his support. But Petrillo was relatively hot (as hot as he would ever be), because Jerry was hot, and so he found work on tv variety shows with Eddie Cantor, Olsen and Johnson and Milton Berle.
Then he teamed up with Italian American crooner Duke Mitchell (Dominic Miceli) and the two formed a night club act not unlike…Martin and Lewis. As a team, the two appeared in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), as high as they ever got (low as it is). Petrillo alleged that Lewis thwarted their career, getting them bumped off a spot on the Colgate Comedy Hour with Abbott and Costello, and getting them blackballed from important club dates. Still the team hung on as long as Martin and Lewis did, breaking up shortly after their famous role models finally terminated their partnership in 1956. After this both men plugged along in show business for the rest of their lives, much farther away from the big time.
Petrillo always acted persecuted by Lewis, but I have to say this is a grey area at best. Yes, it sucks that the powerful Lewis wouldn’t allow Petrillo to make his way in the world as best he could. On the other hand, Petrillo was doing Lewis’s shtick! It reminds me a lot of the professional imitators of Weber and Fields, and Charlie Chaplin, back in the day. It’s rather close to plagiarism. Perhaps no specific lines are copied, but the character is. I’ve tried (without success) to think of someone since Petrillo who’s tried a similar gambit (getting famous doing someone else’s act), and I can’t think of one. I think the reason why is that in modern times lawyers simply don’t let that happen. But here’s what’s sad. Petrillo was definitely talented. He did other impressions besides Lewis, for example. But so much depends on luck, and judgment. He was a teenager when he decided to place his chips on doing the Jerry Lewis thing, and that is what he became known for — branded with, really. With more seasoning, you can say that a safer route would have been for Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo to broaden the appeal of their act. For example, Steve Rossi and Marty Allen also followed a partnership formula very similar to Martin and Lewis…but no one could accuse Marty Allen (for better or worse) of being anything but original.
At any rate, it’s the Halloween season! And Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is a classic camp horror movie! Let’s talk about that!
The film was almost the last step down for the perpetually descending Lugosi, whose pinnacle had been Dracula 20 years earlier, and whose FINAL step down would be into the repertory company of Edward D. Wood Jr (they were to make Glen or Glenda together the following year). The director was the legendary William “One Shot” Beaudine, who had earlier directed Lugosi in The Ape Man (1943) and Voodoo Man (1944).
In the film Mitchell and Petrillo play themselves, en route to perform for the troops in Guam (it’s the height of the Korean War). They parachute from their plane and land on the fictional isle of Kola Kola. There they meet many natives and Duke falls for the chief’s daughter Nona (played by the fetching Charlita, whose list of IMDB credits is actually quite respectable.) Still, the boys want to escape, so they travel to the other side of the island, where a mad scientist (Lugosi) performs research in his castle. One of his test subjects is played by Ramona the Chimp, whose best known credits were as Cheetah in the Tarzan movies. Unfortunately, Lugosi also loves Nona, and when he senses the chemistry between her and Duke, he does what any mad scientist would do in his position — injects Duke with a serum that turns him into a guy in a gorilla suit. This adds a nice symmetry to the plot, for Sammy’s love interest seems to be Ramona the Chimp. At any rate, Petrillo is able to recognize Mitchell when the latter manages to sing his signature song “Indeed I Do” from inside his gorilla suit. Anyway, it all turns out to have all been a dream. (Good ending! Who saw that twist coming?) When last we leave the boys they are doing their act in a jungle-themed nightclub.
Here’s Sammy himself in later years reminiscing about the picture: