Bad Ideas from the 1970s: Jerry Lewis Cinema Franchises Were a Nutty Disaster


At the dawn of the 1970s, the vague-sounding National Cinemas Corp. approached Jerry Lewis about lending his name, likeness, and reputation to a mom 'n' pop movie theater franchise. Jerry himself wouldn't have to do a whole heck of a lot other than sit back and let the big bucks would roll in. Are you beginning to see where Krusty the Klown gets his ideas?

As Cinelog explains, the idea was that mom 'n pop would put down tens of thousands of dollars and would run the theater by themselves, thus keeping the overhead low. They would also show only second-run, family-friendly films ... and therein lay the Achilles' heel of the Jerry Lewis Cinemas.

Well, one of them. The whole thing was a raw tendon.

Hey, who wouldn't want to take a date to see Bedknobs & Freakin' Broomsticks or other dire family fare when the new James Bond movie had just opened?

Also keeping people away in droves was the assumption that "Jerry Lewis Cinema" meant it only showed Jerry Lewis movies, so many of them did as about as much business as a theater only showing Robin Williams movies would do now.

There are no commercials for the Jerry Lewis Cinemas online -- and I suspect none were ever made, not even for the Bay Area locations listed by Cinema Treasures -- so instead, please enjoy some behind-the-scenes footage of Jerry's concurrent boondoggle, The Day The Clown Cried.

The cinema franchise collapsed by the end of the decade. Many of the theaters stayed afloat by showing porn, and it makes me happy to imagine that a former Jerry Lewis Cinema somewhere, maybe this one, showed The Farmer's Daughters starring Spalding Gray.

Hey, a girl can dream.

Sherilyn Connelly is a San Francisco-based writer. She also curates and hosts Bad Movie Night at The Dark Room, every Sunday at 8pm.

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I saw "The Disorderly Orderly", another Jerry Lewis film, when it first came out in the early 1960's.  It was funny!


I remember those! Remember passing one in the DFW area in the 60s. The idea was that the projectors were simple so a non-union projectionist could run two of them simultaneously. I thought it was just another franchise, like Colonel Sanders, which this unfunny clown took up because he couldn't make it in film in any other capacity.

Sherilyn Connelly
Sherilyn Connelly

And you were essentially correct in that assumption, considering that Jerry's film career had pretty much skidded to a halt by that point. The only movie he made between WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT? in 1970 and HARDLY WORKING in 1980 was CLOWN.  Not a great decade for him.

As far the projectors go, that's one of the things I find fascinating about the whole mess: as more theaters go digital, modern movie projection in your average multiplex is not all that different from the Jerry Lewis Cinemas model, at least in terms of the amount of work required by the projectionist.  The whole thing was a sad get-rich-quick scheme, but it was also ahead of its time in its own, perhaps equally sad way.

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