Comedian Jerry Lewis passed away Aug. 20 at the age of 91. Sadly, the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon over Labor Day weekend he championed for decades died before he did. It was a disservice to loyalty and longevity.
Lewis served as national chairman of the MDA and hosted the live Labor Day weekend broadcast of the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon for 44 years. It was, for the longest time, a staple of the three-day weekend celebrating unions, as well as working men and women in America. Lewis, flanked by a slew of celebrities, would entertain millions of American families for 20-plus hours, asking people near and far to dig into their pockets and donate toward the mission to cure muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and other related neuromuscular diseases.
Lewis raised an estimated $2.45 billion for “Jerry’s kids” over his tenure with the MDA. But the Labor Day Telethon is no more, ceasing to exist after 2014. It wasn’t even a “thon” by the end of its run. Without Lewis, the MDA cut back its telethon broadcast from a 21.5-hour show in 2010 to a six-hour show in 2011, three hours in 2012, and two hours in 2013 and 2014.
During that stretch, Lewis’ role was diminished as well. His last appearance on the telethon was in 2010. Depending on who you ask, he either resigned or was ousted — the true story behind the aging comedian’s departure remains untold even now. MDA officials continue to maintain that Lewis simply retired, but referred to his departure as “sudden.” In 2012, Lewis was asked about why he left the famed broadcast, and he refused to talk about it.
Lewis’ departure was not the only controversy surrounding the event. People who had muscular dystrophy — a group of diseases that cause muscles to progressively weaken — and their advocates objected to Lewis treating those with the disease as victims. Critics questioned how the MDA was spending the money raised from the telethons.
But people tend to try and remember the good things, and the telethon certainly did much to both raise money and public awareness. For TV viewers old enough to remember watching the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon during its heyday, it was a one-of-a-kind experience. Every year, Lewis dominated the show, delivering a blend of showbiz schmaltz and true-life, touching stories of people who had muscular dystrophy and their families. More than 2,000 celebrities graced the stage with him, and the national “tote board” performances were interspersed with local television stations assisting the cause in their own way, with local celebrities and news crews adding flair and personal stories to the mix.
The highest point in the telethon’s history was in 1976, when Frank Sinatra coordinated the reunion of Lewis with his former comedy partner, Dean Martin. It was an incredible moment, not just in telethon history, but in television history, being Martin and Lewis’s first public appearance together in 20 years. The two tearfully hugged, kidded around and cracked a few one-liners before Martin and Sinatra sang, after which Martin disappeared with a wave and a friendly “Ciao!”
The MDA claims it pulled the plug on the telethon in large part because television audiences and fundraising methods have changed. This may be true. But in doing so, the MDA pulled the plug on a part of Americana. The passing of Lewis on Aug. 20 adds to that chasm.