Monday, May 4, 2015

Jerry's Kids and No More Telethon?

As kids growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, we were always jazzed about the annual Labor Day telethon. In a herculean example of energy, comedian Jerry Lewis would host the telethon from stem to stern (with a short nap break), raising millions of dollars to eradicate this horrible muscle disease. You might go fishing on labor day, or have a bbq with the family, but you always knew that Lewis was hosting the show and that much good was being done.Starting on the previous Sunday night and lasting until Monday early evening, Lewis joked, cajoled, begged, mugged and implored you to send in a few bucks for “his kids”. We held carnivals in our backyards, car washes at our schools and churches, and collected pennies in drop boxes in our convenience stores . Jerry introduced acts, ran through the ever-changing audience with buckets for money yelling “gimme that!”, and frequently went to the tote board to revisit the latest totals pledged. Sometime in the 80’s and 90’s it became the thing for the intelligentsia (so-called) to poke fun at the telethon and Jerry’s methods. Stalwart entertainers who could be counted on to bring their talent to the MDA stages began to drop off due to advanced age and death. When I volunteered to help with phones, we were comfortably placed in hotels with banks of phones and a television screen. “Jerry looks good,” we would whisper to each other as we felt part of the movement. We were helping. We were getting closer to a cure for a myriad of degenerative muscle diseases. I would take caller’s donations and then rush home and phone in my own donation. It was part of the holiday. When Jerry sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” it was truly the end of summer. School beginning, the sad passage of time. Then they fired Jerry. He was going to talk about it, he was NOT going to talk about it. Then the guy who fired Jerry was himself fired. Now the telethon was reduced to five hours, now two. The same amount of money was donated in two hours, they lied, as in 21 hours. “The age of 21 hour tv is over” said a spokesman when it was announced that the telethon was being yanked. No more telethon. Years of carnivals to raise money, track meets. Millions donated by firemen, and 7-11, and the Shriners. Gone with a whimper and barely a word of explanation. The 21 hour tv hour is over? In an age of binge watching of every series on every device known to man? Jerry has all of his marbles and the energy of the 12 year old he’s always been. The MDA seems to harbor no grudges (in fact, they did a tribute to their long time host a year after it was announced that he was out). The kids still matter. It’s a good, noble, decent charity. They still do many good things. Why can’t they work this out? Say a more manageable 6 hour charity? Or a long telethon (as they do now) with several hosts continuing in their co-managing duties (Tony Orlando, et all)? Jerry sits at his desk, and opens the show with a speech – some little magic comedy bit that he squirrels away in his marvelous ever-present scrapbook of ideas? He can introduce acts, manage the last song with eloquence and style…Not merely for the nostalgic kid in all of us, but as a practical way to raise MORE for those wonderful kids and adults, struck down in their prime by Duchenne’s, or suffering silently in their chairs. We haven’t abandoned Jerry’s kids. Why did they? *** you can read more from this author including The Worst Paperboy in the World and Searching for Elvis on Amazon and wherever fine ebooks are sold.


  1. This is a very fascinating article! Sadly, I've never watched the Telethon, but would love to go back and time and stay up all night with Jerry Lewis for the telethon. I love Jerry. He is a great guy! It was so wonderful, all the great things he did for the children in need.

    1. it was a great exciting experience. obviously in a show of that length, there were slow spots. but when they came back from a commercial Jerry might be part of a chorus, picking on the old man next to him - or leading a charge into the audience - or trying to wrap his mouth around a camera lens. It was unpredictable, magic. An important part of the holiday. You can catch some bits on YouTube, like the moment he got back together with Dean, but it doesn't capture the thrill of live tv...(that moment came around 2 in the morning. I was lying on the couch when Sinatra introduced a 'buddy he had backstage' and when Dean walked out, it took me a second and then i was bolt upright on the couch...Holy Cow! Dean and Jerry, together again after decades apart. They replayed it throughout the next day of the telethon.
      Anyway, thanks for the read and your terrific words :)