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The Jerry Lewis Telethon

I know, I know, it’s the MDA Labor Day Telethon but, if you are a certain age, it is the Jerry Lewis Telethon.   Without Jerry Lewis, the telethon would have died an early death – the fact that he is no longer involved is shocking.

The hosts have all been gracious; they know his non-participation and unwillingness to even mention his participation with the Muscular Dystrophy Association has been big news.  It seems the parting has been contentious.

But how contentious could it be?  If I am running the MDA, and Jerry Lewis has been instrumental in making the organization a national cause, including $2 billion in donations, I let him retire on his terms.  It seems that was not possible.   Lewis has an ego – but he earned his ego.   His goofy, zany act was part of meticulous preparation and calculation and business acumen.

The MDA announced unceremoniously last year they were cutting the telethon to 6 hours – they didn’t consult Lewis, it seems.  In May of this year they announced he was no longer hosting the show but the hosts tonight made it sound like he retired, saying they did not know his rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” would be the last because he had been ‘contemplating retirement’.

He’s 85 years old, he isn’t contemplating anything.  If he intended to retire from the telethon, it would have been meticulously planned to have maximum impact with the audience and, if we are being blunt, to raise donations for sick kids.

He first began hosting in 1966 but getting it to where it became a nationwide phenomenon was no trivial task; in the 1960s, the heyday of union power, no one was going to be allowed to work for free but the Theatre Authority eventually relented, thanks to his pressure, and so performers were allowed to help raise money too and its profile increased a lot.  Lewis could get big names.

The telethon became successful and they bypassed network control by signing individual stations – that’s how syndication used to be done before cable, when a program went into reruns or was independent it was sold to individual stations one at a time.  Soon, they were nationwide in virtually every market.

When I was a young guy, my parents would let me stay up as late as I wanted – all night if I could – and watch the whole thing.  And I tried.  If sick kids were important enough for Lewis to stay up, it was important enough for me.   It was a nationwide phenomenon.(1)

In recent years, donations have ‘dropped’ and fewer have stations have been willing to donate time to the full program  When they first came up with the idea, no one even thought it would work because, they said, everyone was on holiday, but stations were happy to have free, original content – it was a smash hit.  As kids, both my wife and I recall trying to raise money, going door-to-door.

But have donations dropped compared to every other charity in the world?  No, they would give anything to have the exposure and money MDA has – they are all just as worthy.  They just don’t have a Jerry Lewis putting this organization on his back and lifting it into our culture.  Learn about the advancements in muscular dystrophy.

Because stations participated individually rather than as part of a network, I was able to see the clip below even though we only got one television station out in the country where we lived.  I didn’t understand at the time, 20 years apart had no meaning to me,  like I didn’t get that winning the Triple Crown was hard.  When I was first watching the Jerry Lewis Telethon, I watched Secretariat and then Seattle Slew and Affirmed all win those races, all within 5 years of each other.  I didn’t realize until later it had been 25 years since that was done at all – it’s now been 33 years since I saw a horse win the Triple Crown.

Obviously this was a big deal, to them and the audience – Jerry Lewis made big things happen, he could get anyone to show up for his telethon(2).  Frank Sinatra decided to reward his soul, even if it was clearly an uncomfortable moment.  Lewis and Dean Martin had an acrimonious split 20 years earlier, 10 years to the day after they started working together.  Both went on to spectacular careers alone, though Martin is more known today for his Rat Pack antics while Lewis is famous for the telethon.   But Frank Sinatra could surprise Lewis on stage and it was okay.

Not many could.  Lewis was, like all mercurial people in control of their own destinies, difficult to work with and work for and didn’t like surprises.  With the telethon, his control worked; he cared about sick kids and it was hard to criticize him for that.   If you were the CEO of a company, you were going to pick up the phone when he called and he was going to get money from you.

He has gotten  worse in temperament as he aged but the MDA needs to recognize they are not the government so they can complain about ‘fewer’ donations from the public and less time from an 85-year-old man if they want, they would have about $2 billion fewer in donations without him.  That isn’t government money, that is donations from you and me and private companies who have lots of choices about who to donate money to, if they want to donate money at all.

Like baseball spring training and home towns, people feel a sense of entitlement about not allowing progress for their memories of childhood.  Time moves on, but I’d like to have known last year was the last year.  MDA would be a forgotten organization without someone like him driving it for the last 59 years(!)

My inclination is to believe that there will be a reconciliation after the MDA comes to its senses – maybe they did, and kissed his butt to get whatever it took to get him on the show tonight, I have no idea and won’t know until it is over.  If they don’t, it could be a legendary public relations disaster as time goes on.

You may be one of those people fortunate enough to be able to piss on Jerry Lewis for raising research money to try and help these kids, in the belief that their being ‘special’ means neuromuscular diseases shouldn’t ever be fixed.

If you agree with that sentiment, a humanities dirtbag (naturally) writing in The Nation (naturally) is probably more your speed than my article – Jon Wiener contends Lewis “perpetuated destructive stereotypes”, which is precisely why finding anyone in the humanities who has done anything of value for anyone in America for decades is so difficult.   Lewis being gone is less of a reminder to people like Wiener that some people are bigger than life and do bigger than life things, and so their own inability to contribute something of value to society will be less glaring by comparison.

Whatever you are doing tonight, Mr. Lewis, your service is appreciated by lots of people who have been blessed never to have been touched by these diseases – we are just inspired by your efforts.


(1) In 1975, the Nielsen ratings for the year had The Jerry Lewis Telethon in third place, behind only The Oscars and The Super Bowl.

(2) As big as the Jackson Five were, he had so many people he had to squeeze them in. That’s right, he barely had time for Michael Jackson.

1 Comment

  1. The entire Internet seems as surprised as I was by Nigel whatever’s claim that Jerry Lewis had retired.

    I bet Lewis was surprised also.


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