Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day Lost: The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon

 Growing up, Labor Day meant two things – the start of another dreaded school year was just around the corner, and I would get to stay up later than usual to watch the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon.

This past Sunday night, the Muscular Dystrophy Association broadcast a three-hour “Show of Strength” featuring pre-taped performances from a variety of entertainers, but there was no tote board, no phone banks and no Jerry Lewis, who was summarily discharged from his duties in 2011 after 45 years of service.

There’s no disputing that, in its last few years with Lewis as host, the telethons had become antiquated affairs. “Watching the stars come out,” meant performances from Charo and Norm Crosby, the same people who were there when I was still in high school. And Jerry Lewis was now turning in earlier than I used to, only to return at the end to unveil the final tote board and sing, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as the last confetti fell. 

But even well past their prime, there was something comforting about these annual broadcasts, and how they conjured childhood memories of struggling against sleep after midnight, and surviving the boring local segments, which didn’t have the glitz and star power of the Las Vegas national telecast.

Back then there was something exciting about a television special being on all night, and I always vowed that one year I was going to be in for the duration, but I never made it. This was once a show millions of people actually looked forward to watching, despite the grim realities that inspired its creation. And whatever else one can say about Jerry Lewis, it was clear this was his personal crusade. He was strongly invested in every broadcast, and genuinely grateful for the support of the firefighters and the corporate and civic groups who made an annual pilgrimage to drop off a check, and then introduce a short film about their fundraising activities that was never very interesting.

Each year we looked forward to the same regular bits; the tympani roll as the tote board added another million, as the orchestra played "What the World Needs Now is Love"; Lewis receiving a seven-figure check and exclaiming, “Oh, yeah, Oh, YEAH!” in an exaggerated Brooklyn accent, sporting the same awestruck look that Taylor Swift has when she wins another country music award. Other Lewis traditions – banter with Ed McMahon, some good-natured jibes at the floor director, and his comedic orchestra conductor bit. And being Vegas there was usually an Elvis impersonator. In the earlier days it was a guy named Alan, who was actually booked as “Alan,” which may be one reason why he never went anywhere.

And then there were the personal stories of the families touched by neuromuscular disease. These were tougher to watch, but once again it was apparent that Jerry cared about “his kids,” and how much he enjoyed making each year’s “poster child” smile and laugh, while knowing there was a chance that child wouldn’t be around next year. 

When I was a kid, organizing MDA carnivals was a popular fundraising idea, and when I was 5 I held one in my front yard. My parents and I fashioned a few crude games and served refreshments, and had a pretty good turnout from the neighborhood, resulting in our largest ever donation – more than $100. A few years later, I went to Arlington Park racetrack on Labor Day, and said if I hit the Daily Double, I’d donate the winnings to Jerry’s Kids. I called both races correctly, and MDA received a $250 donation.

But telethons were not created for our more cynical times, and even I lost interest over the past decade. I might donate via the MDA website but wouldn’t manage more than an hour or two of the broadcast. Those annual Parade magazine covers of Jerry and the new poster child were now accompanied by stories of disgruntled adults who bristled at the condescension they heard in the “Jerry’s Kids” label, and viewed the telethon as shameless exploitation.

I also felt that after all these years (and more than $1.6 billion in donations), it would have been encouraging to see a little more progress on the treatment front. It’s comforting that our dollars went to buy wheelchairs and send kids to camp, but the goal of a cure seems no closer than when the telethon was visited by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. You can only hear about “promising gene therapies” so many years before wondering if that promise is ever going to be realized.

I can’t be angry at MDA for taking their show in another direction, but what they gained in higher-profile celebrities they lost in heart and sentiment. Whatever the cause of the falling out between Lewis, a still healthy 86, and the charity he served so well, there should have been a more gradual transition that allowed Jerry to step aside with dignity intact. 

But with the end of the traditional Jerry Lewis MDA Telethons, "broadcast across the Love Network," another example of Comfort TV slips away, never to return. 

1 comment:

  1. The MDA should round some of the old telethons up (assuming they still exist) and release them on disc. I'd gladly buy them.