Behind the sunning of yourself at the beach or the endless smoking of BBQ grills, the last long weekend before the fall holidays has real meaning that inspired the day.
Jerry Lewis was Mr. Labor Day for 45 Years
When I was a child the Labor day weekend was a time for backyard carnivals to raise money for Jerry’s Kids.
The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon was a staple and everyone and I mean everyone watched the show.
As Jerry Lewis continuously rose and fell in the eye of public opinion throughout his career, one thing remained constant: Every Labor Day weekend from 1966 to 2010, he and celebrity pals such as Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Carson and Jack Benny would be on television for almost 24 hours, raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association on his annual telethon.
He raised around $2.5 billion through these telethons, the MDA told the Los Angeles Times, and he scooped up some impressive accolades for himself along the way, such as the 2009 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
When he died Sunday at 91, the White House issued a brief statement of appreciation, which mentioned “his incredible charity work” that “touched the lives of millions.” It called him “one of our greatest entertainers and humanitarians.”
To many, Lewis was a hero.
Since the organization booted out Jerry, I have not watched it nor contributed to the organization. For me Jerry and Labor Day were partners.
But like Martin and Lewis the split was tragic and may never be the same again. If you think about it long and hard it can be depressing. Can someone pass me another hotdog.
For decades, it was a TV tradition. Millions of people tuned in every year to watch Jerry Lewis host the MDA Labor Day Telethon. For 20-plus hours, Lewis would sing, joke, mug, cajole, weep, and play ringmaster to a horde of celebrities as he appealed to viewers to dig deep and donate to the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
But the MDA Labor Day Telethon is no more. Earlier this year, the Muscular Dystrophy Association announced that the organization was ending the annual Labor Day telethon. It’s a move that followed Lewis retiring as host in 2011, and recent years that saw the once daylong extravaganza shrunk, first to six hours, then to three hours.
In announcing the end of the Labor Day telethon, the Muscular Dystrophy Association cited “the new realities of television viewing and philanthropic giving.” Steven M. Derks, MDA president and CEO, said, “In the last few years, the show was adjusted to reflect changes in viewership and donor patterns, and last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge once again affirmed for us that today’s families, donors and sponsors are looking to us for new, creative and organic ways to support our mission.”
But for TV viewers old enough to remember watching the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon, it was a one-of-a-kind experience.
Each year, Lewis would dominate the show, delivering a blend of showbiz schmaltz, and true-life, touching stories of people who had muscular dystrophy and their families. Whether you liked it or cringed, it was live television at its most live, with Lewis getting more cranky and teary as the hours rolled by, pleading with viewers to make the numbers on the tote board increase.
But the longer it lasted, the more controversy dogged the telethon. 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 pathetic victims. Critics questioned how the Muscular Dystrophy Association was spending the money raised from the telethon.
But to many others, including a large contingent of people living with disabilities, his telethons were insensitive and self-serving. They said that Lewis treated the children he claimed to be helping with little respect, that he pitied those living with muscular dystrophy and that he used offensive language when describing them.
Eventually, the telethons were protested by a group of people with disabilities who called themselves Jerry’s Orphans, a play on the term Jerry’s Kids, which Lewis used to describe those children with muscular dystrophy.
The backlash grew so loud that in 2001, Lewis apologized for referring to people confined to wheelchairs as “cripples” and for saying donors gave to the telethons out of pity. The apology came after he told “CBS Sunday Morning” that, “I’m telling you about a child in trouble. If it’s pity, we’ll get some money.”
Indeed, as the culture changed, the way people spoke about people with disabilities changed dramatically during the years Lewis hosted the telethon, but he often seemed to be a step behind.
When discussing why he raised money for those with muscular dystrophy, Lewis was always vague. On “The Phil Donahue Show,” he once explained it by saying, “It was a very personal, very private reason.”
The appeal began in 1966 on a single television station in New York, when such fundraising methods were still in their infancy. It raised just over one million dollars, the Associated Press reported.
From there, the telethon continued to grow. As it did, it attracted its fair share of detractors.
“I have always had problems with the pity approach to raising money,” the late Evan J. Kemp Jr., the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the George H.W. Bush administration, who has a form or muscular dystrophy, told the New York Times in 1992. “I think emotions can be turned on without pity stories. There’s a fine line between compassion and pity. You know it in the way you’re treated.”
Writer Ben Mattlin, self-described as being “born with a muscular-dystrophy-related disease,” wrote an open letter to Lewis in a 1991 issue of the Los Angeles Times. Its title: “The Disabled Need Dignity, Not Pity.”
Mattlin, who once appeared on Lewis’s telethon, wrote that the annual spectacle “always turned my stomach” before stating that a woman with a “disability similar to mine, says she cannot watch your telethon because it makes her want to kill herself.”
Mattlin continued, quoting Lewis throughout:
Speaking of “the dystrophic child’s plight,” or calling disability a “curse” reinforces the offensive stereotype that we are victims. Wheelchairs are not “steel imprisonment,” nor are we who use them “confined” or “bound”; they are liberating aluminum and vinyl vehicles. Similarly, phrases like “dealt a bad hand” and “got in the wrong line” are unfair. Disability is not “bad” or “wrong.”
Other examples abound: Being dressed or fed by others is a hassle, but not an “indignity.” There is no shame in needing others, no loss of dignity. Our needs are more personal and continuing than other people’s — nothing to be ashamed of.
In 1992, a group of critics “who include several former telethon poster children who call themselves ‘Jerry’s Orphans,’” protested the telethon in several cities at stations that carried the broadcast, The Washington Post reported.
“Our goal is to put Jerry Lewis out of the disability business. He has no business being there. He doesn’t understand in any way, nor does he wish to, the majority of the [disabled] population,” Mike Ervin, a former telethon poster child from Chicago who co-founded Jerry’s Orphans, told The Post.
The telethon persisted despite these protests, ending five years after he and the MDA parted ways in 2010, “under circumstances that remain vague,” as The Washington Post’s Adam Bernstein reported. He was 84 years old. By that time, the telethon was just three hours long.
After he left, the progressive publication the Nation ran a piece with the headline, “The End of the Jerry Lewis Telethon — It’s About Time” and a subhead reading, “A great day for people with disabilities.” It pointed to a moment in the 1973 telethon when Lewis reportedly, “holds up a child with muscular dystrophy and announces, ‘God goofed, and it’s up to us to correct His mistakes.’”
But the telethon had many defenders as well and I am one of them.
“The telethons have heightened public awareness, not only for MDA victims, but other disabilities as well,” MDA spokesman Bob Mackle once said,
“Before the telethons, people with disabilities weren’t seen on television. Children were not allowed in schools, disabled people were shunned. The telethons changed that by humanizing the victims.”
Arguably the loudest voice belonged to Muscular Dystrophy Association vice president, the late Bob Sampson who had a form or muscular dystrophy.
“If I didn’t feel my dignity and my pride were being preserved, I would never have become involved,” Sampson told the New York Times. “I believe in Jerry Lewis.”
Lewis himself, never known for keeping a low profile, had no time but many harsh words for such critics.
“I have all the strength in the world to fight those morons,” he once told The Washington Post about his telethon critics. “Do they want to talk to the 135,000 who are afflicted, who call me their hero? They’ll get killed. And what about the S.O.B.s who come to you and say, ‘How much do you get out of this action?’ You have to smile, because they have capital punishment in most states.”
One thing is certain: The MDA has not distanced itself from Lewis.
“MDA would not be the organization it is today if it were not for Jerry’s tireless efforts on behalf of ‘his kids,‘” MDA Chairman R. Rodney Howell said in a statement after Lewis’s death. “Jerry’s love, passion and brilliance are woven throughout this organization, which he helped build from the ground up.”
“Though we will miss him beyond measure, we suspect that somewhere in heaven, he’s already urging the angels to give ‘just one dollar more for my kids,’” Howell added.
But the MDA Labor Day Telethon is no more. In announcing the end of the Labor Day telethon, the Muscular Dystrophy Association cited “the new realities of television viewing and philanthropic giving.” Steven M. Derks, MDA president and CEO, said, “In the last few years, the show was adjusted to reflect changes in viewership and donor patterns, and last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge once again affirmed for us that today’s families, donors and sponsors are looking to us for new, creative and organic ways to support our mission.”
But for TV viewers old enough to remember watching the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon, it was a one-of-a-kind experience.
LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 4: Comedian Jerry Lewis hosts the “Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon” on September 4, 2005 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)
Now that it’s gone, here’s a look back at some telethon facts and figures:
1. Non-Jerry Lewis Telethons: In the early days, the MDA put on five local telethons in two years: in Cleveland (March 7, 1952); Atlanta (June 6-7, 1952); Washington, D.C. (Dec. 26-27, 1952); Grand Rapids, Michigan (June 27-28, 1953); and Madison, Wisconsin (Sept. 12-13, 1953.) Hosts included Dick Van Dyke, Robert Alda, Virginia Graham and Captain Video (the hero of the DuMont Network sci-fi show, “Captain Video and His Video Rangers.”)
2. The First Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon: Though Lewis had been given the honorary title of National Chairman of the MDA in 1956, and hosted Thanksgiving telethons in 1957 and 1959, he didn’t host the first MDA Labor Day Telethon until 1966. It was broadcast by only one station, New York’s WNEW-TV. But this show made Labor Day the annual telethon date for all the years to come.
3. Money Raised: According to the MDA, the telethon raised $2.5 billion over the years.
4. Telethon Guests (partial list): Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Carol Burnett, Richard Burton, Johnny Carson, Bill Cosby, Doris Day, Robert DeNiro, Jimmy Fallon, Jackie Gleason, Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Patrick Harris, Burt Lancaster, Jack Lemmon, Eddie Murphy, Bob Newhart, Paul Newman, Rosie O’Donnell, Gregory Peck, Mickey Rooney, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, William Shatner, Martin Short, Ed Sullivan, Barbara Walters, Robin Williams and Oprah Winfrey.
5. Telethon Musical Guests (partial list): Count Basie, the Bee Gees, Tony Bennett, Clint Black, Jon Bon Jovi, Garth Brooks, Mariah Carey, Ray Charles, Cher, Chicago, Phil Collins, Perry Como, Sammy Davis Jr., Gloria Estefan, Aretha Franklin, Josh Groban, Faith Hill, Enrique Iglesias, Alan Jackson, the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Elton John, Quincy Jones, Tom Jones, KISS, Eartha Kitt, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson, Donny and Marie Osmond, Dolly Parton, Tom Petty, Queen, Kid Rock, Kenny Rogers, Spice Girls, Ringo Starr, Rolling Stones, Sugarland, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder and Wynonna.
6. Ed McMahon:The “Tonight Show” announcer took a break from bellowing “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” to be the telethon anchor, beginning in 1968 and continuing for 40 years.
7. Biggest Telethon Moment: Everybody who watched may have their favorites, from Lewis having emotional meltdowns to guests looking like deer caught in the headlights. But the biggest moment of all was in 1976. As Shawn Levy, former Oregonian movie critic, recounts it in his Lewis biography “King of Comedy,” Frank Sinatra made a scheduled appearance on the telethon, fresh from his performance at Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace. Sinatra then surprised Lewis by bringing out Dean Martin, Lewis’ former partner, who Lewis hadn’t seen in more than a decade. The live, on-camera reunion was an emotional highlight, “an undeniably historic show-biz moment, electric even for those who had no taste for Jerry or his charity work,” as Levy writes.
Did you used to watch the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethons? Hey! Lady…….