R S V P / ORANGE COUNTY : Giving Devil His Due, Even Though He Misses the Party

Theater buffs munched popcorn, savored pizza and listened to a trio sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" Tuesday following the Orange County premiere of "Damn Yankees" at the Performing Arts Center.

Gathered at Piret's restaurant at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, center supporters raved about the musical starring comedian Jerry Lewis.

"It was better than attending the World Series," said Carol Hoffman.

Waiting for Jerry

Cindy Harley couldn't wait to tell Lewis how much she enjoyed his performance. The 69-year-old comedian plays Mr. Applegate, the devil who tempts an aging baseball fan to sell his soul to become a star slugger for the Washington Senators.

"I love him with all of my heart," Harley said. "I've watch his movies ever since I was a little girl."

But Lewis was unable to attend the bash, which was attended by the rest of the cast. He had an appointment in Los Angeles the following morning. "He's driving back to L.A. tonight," explained a center spokesman.

"What? He won't be here?" Harley wailed, upon learning the news. "I dragged myself out of a sickbed to meet him!"

Lewis Talks Backstage

Minutes after his performance, Lewis met with admirers in his dressing room. "This theater is incredible," he said, sipping a cold beer from a bottle. "It's impossible to conceive that it can be that cozy and that large ."

Onstage, Lewis mugged, danced, tossed a baton and never missed a cue in the three-hour musical. Not bad for a showman who will be 70 in March. He looks 10 years younger.

His secret? "Embalming fluid, " he deadpanned. "Every morning, 2 ounces with Wheaties. It's wonderful."

He has become a role model for seniors, he said. During one appearance on the "Damn Yankees" tour, Lewis had a 63-year-old man ask him the secret to staying young.

"He said he wasn't sick," Lewis said. "But he arrived at the show with a walker. He wanted me to help him figure out why he felt lousy. When he told me he retired at 50, I said, ' Now I know what's wrong with you--you've atrophied!'

"I can dance and jump up and down and act because I think young, I told him. I have always had two words out of my vocabulary--'Hitler' and 'retire.' "

Lessons From Lewis

During the party, cast members talked about what Lewis has taught them. "Jerry has taught me to never stop being a 9-year-old," said actor David Elder, who plays Joe Hardy in the show.

"To stay young, that's what you gotta do," Elder said. "Act like a child."

Valerie Wright, who plays the seductive Lola, said Lewis has taught her patience.

"And graciousness," she said. "Jerry Lewis is a very gracious man."


Jerry Lewis is having a ball with "Damn Yankees." F1

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