Jerry Lewis isn't dead. As I type this he's 89-years-old and still touring with a comedy show. To the general public who don't bother checking up on him, he may as well be. For decades, Lewis hosted the MDA Labor Day Telethon. For those of you who weren't paying attention back then, the telethon was a nearly-22-hour long event that began on Sunday night and went on through Labor Day. Stars from all walks of entertainment would make appearances in hope that you would donate to the battle against muscular dystrophy.
A few years ago, Lewis was dumped by the Muscular Dystrophy Association for undisclosed reasons. He was their chairman and had run the telethon itself for decades. The telethon lingered in pathetic shorter versions for a few years, but I ended my financial support. I have since learned that the telethon no longer exists in any form.
My memories of the telethon go way back. My parents always watched, which of course meant that I did as well. I can remember breakfasts out on Labor Day Sunday mornings where we would discuss who and what they would put on that year to get donations. In the newspaper that weekend, the pull-out Parade Magazine always featured the telethon. I also remember year-round ads for the event inside of Service Merchandise stores, as the retailer was a major supporter.
When Sunday night came around, you wanted to stay up and watch. Although live television was hardly new, it made it all feel a bit more special. This was before everyone was constantly online, so a live, nationwide broadcast made you feel connected. The often used telethon tagline of "Stay up and watch the stars come out!" only added to that feeling.
In the years before I was born and into the '80s and early '90s, the event attracted very big names. The most famous moment in telethon history, Frank Sinatra reuniting Lewis and his estranged partner Dean Martin, happened before my time, but the show still seemed like a big deal. As the event continued into the late-'90s, you could definitely notice a dip in "A-List" acts, but the fact was that many of Lewis' own contemporaries were long gone and many acts of the then-new day simply didn't seem to care.
My family donated when we could, and for some unknown reason I recall always playing with my Star Wars toys while watching. I would fall asleep with the telethon on, and always seemed to wake up to some sort of loud Stomp-esque dance number. As my family didn't stay home much on days that my dad had off, I often missed a lot of the Labor Day portion, but usually saw Jerry's final tally where he usually (but not always) made his yearly goal of "one dollar more." That last drum roll, always called for by longtime co-host Ed McMahon, was followed by Jerry's rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone." That song, as well as "Smile," were telethon staples that will always be remembered as such.
A few times I actually got to see our local Pittsburgh portion live and in-person. Nationwide, the local channel broadcasting the telethon often hosted their own local portion with their own fundraising and appearances. WPXI would host the Pittsburgh broadcast from the fabled Monroeville Mall. Pittsburgh broadcasting renaissance man Bill "Chilly Billy" Cardille was the head of the local efforts. Cardille, one of the nicest people that you could ever meet, had a long career in Pittsburgh on radio and more notably on television as a weatherman, host of late-night movie series "Chiller Theater," and Studio Wrestling. Cardille's co-stars from those shows, including wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino, often came down to the mall to help man the telethon phone bank. This actually granted me my first in-person glimpse of the wrestling legend, not knowing that I would meet him many times years later.
Of course, what the event really boiled down to was helping the cause. "Jerry's Kids" were featured prominently throughout both the national and local portions. Some called it exploitative. Yes, even then we, sadly, had social justice warriors trying to make themselves feel good. My parents always made sure that I understood what these afflicted kids (and adults) were going through and why the cause was important. Luke Christie and the late Mattie Stepanek are two of the featured children who stay in my mind, both of whom served as National Goodwill Ambassadors.
Fortunately, many clips and segments of the classic telethons remain on YouTube. As a child, I always wondered what would happen to the telethon once Mr. Lewis passed on, but it turns out that he outlived it, and not for the reason that he was hoping for--finding a cure. Still, his efforts likely continue to benefit MDA even after their dismissal of him. Kids suffering from the terrible neuromuscular diseases have lived much longer and enjoyable lives than they would have, had those dollars not been raised. Again, those folks are the ones who it was really all about.