Lifestyle

The Ode: Jerry Lewis Telethon (1966-2011)

The fundraiser leaned heavily on mid-century celebrity, but despite the billions raised, it eventually became as stodgy and embarrassing as its host.

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Chris Farina/Corbis

Jerry Lewis’s connection to the Muscular Dystrophy Association began in the early 1950s, when the actor and comedian was first approached to host a series of local fundraising telethons in New York. Eventually, the MDA presented Lewis with the idea of staging a bigger show, and in 1966 the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon debuted, launching a legendary 45-year run that has raised billions of dollars for MD services and research.

The first telethon aired on a single station in New York on Labour Day—the only day the station had airtime available to donate. Expectations for the event were low. The city hesitated to issue the association a fundraising permit, thinking too many New Yorkers would be away from their TV sets over the long weekend. Lewis proved them wrong. The first telethon was so successful the host had to paint a “1” on the set’s six-digit tote board to handle the $1,002,114 raised—an act he repeated in 1973 when the $10-million mark was reached.

Entertainers were needed to fill airtime and encourage viewer pledges, and with the star power Lewis was able to attract, the show soon began expanding to additional stations, hitting a high of 213 outlets in 1976. Though the telethon was a fundraiser foremost, entertainment value was the reason many viewers tuned in—and stayed awake all night as the show expanded to 21½ hours. At its peak, the show featured such legends as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Liberace, and Burt Lancaster. As the years wore on, Borscht Belt celebrities from Lewis’s heyday continued to appear alongside such stars of the day as John Lennon, Fred Savage and Kiss.

The show obtained legendary status in 1976 when Sinatra arranged a surprise reunion for Lewis with his one-time comedic partner, Dean Martin. Though they hadn’t performed together in 20 years, Lewis quickly overcame his shock to ad lib, “So, you working?” cracking up the in-studio audience.

Despite his seemingly good deeds, Lewis was often roundly criticized by disability rights groups who felt the show presented those afflicted with MD—who Lewis referred to as “my kids”—disrespectfully and as objects of pity. Others felt Lewis was a poor spokesman in general, with his unpredictable on-screen antics often resulting in crude insults to talent and sponsors, and often offending viewers.

Lewis managed to meet his goal of “one dollar more” than the previous year for all but six of his 45 years on air to date, earning around $60 million annually over the past decade, for a career total of nearly $2.5 billion. In recent years, however, Lewis has missed his goal more often, most likely due to the poor economy, but possibly  also due in part to the public’s loss of interest in televised variety shows, and the telethon’s increasing inability to attract big name talent, forcing it to lean on D-list celebrities like Tony Orlando and Charo.

Last fall, the MDA announced it would cut back the telethon to a six-hour prime time special in 2011, leading to speculation that Lewis, who has been forced to cut back his airtime considerably in recent years due to mounting heath issues, was on his way out. On May 16, the star, now 85, announced he would make his final appearance on the telethon this Labour Day, closing the show with his signature number, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Lewis stated it was time for a “new telethon era,” but said he would remain chairman of the MDA, a position he has held for more than 50 years: “I’ll never desert MDA and my kids.”