It used to be a time of anticipation the week before it. Back then we had only three television stations to watch and one of them had nearly all of the audience for about 21 and a half hours. If you weren’t going to a family picnic at a park or at the beach you sat in front of the television watching a myriad of big stars “doing their thing.” The day is Labor Day and the event was the annual Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. With only three stations available there wasn’t much else of interest to watch. Growing up in Rochester, New York we were in the first group of cities in New York State to receive the telethon on our local station. A short time later it became a nationwide telethon and the stars became bigger and more numerous.
How did this spectacle come into being? According to MDA.org “In June 1950, Paul Cohen, a prominent New York business leader living with muscular dystrophy, invited a group of individuals to meet him in his Rye, New York office. Each had a personal connection to muscular dystrophy, and the gathering focused on the urgent need to raise funds to advance research seeking treatments and cures for muscular dystrophy. The group – so vested in the fight against neuromuscular diseases – formed the organization that became the Muscular Dystrophy Association.”
Their goal was to recruit celebrities who could help them promote this great cause. Cohen met with the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to get them to become “champions for the cause.” Martin and Lewis ended their popular television show with a pitch for people to support muscular dystrophy research. The first telethon was broadcast June 29-30 in 1956. Jerry Lewis hosted telethons in 1957 and again in 1959.
The first official MDA,Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon was broadcast in 1966 on only one station WNEW-TV in New York, City. They assembled small group of local television stations in New York State including WHEC-TV in Rochester and WGR-TV in Buffalo and WTEV-TV in Providence Rhode Island, and WKBG in Boston, Massachusetts to broadcast the telethon. That’s when I first saw the telethon. It would start Sunday evening and continue for 21 and a half hours concluding Labor Day evening.
Back in 1976 Frank Sinatra set up a reunion between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis who hadn’t appeared together on stage singe they broke up their comedy team. Video is from Youtube submitted by Dynamite Joe. Entertainment of all kinds was featured throughout those hours and many of the performers became regulars returning to donate their services to help “Jerry’s Kids” as he liked to call them. For many years Johnny Carson’s sidekick Ed McMahon acted as a co-host with Jerry.
The Labor Day telethon in 2010 was the last one hosted by Jerry Lewis. It was said that he was retiring from the MDA telethon, but it became obvious to me that there was much more to that story. Over the years the telethon is said to have earned 2.6 Billion dollars for MDA. The telethon lasted for a short time after that becoming a couple hour entertainment show. The official reason given for ending the telethon tradition was “After careful consideration and analysis and as families and supporters began looking for new ways to support and get involved with the organization, MDA once again evolved with the times to create new opportunities through social media and other digital channels to inspire the nation in support of the fight against muscular dystrophy.”
Do I miss the telethon? You bet I do, but times have changed and you have to change with them. With the recent death of Jerry Lewis it really marks the end of what was a great era in television entertainment and fundraising. Labor Day will never be the same again for me anyway. It’s like when band leader Guy Lombardo died in 1977.
I grew up hearing his band every New Years Eve playing “Auld Lang Syne” at the stroke of midnight to welcome the new year. Dick Clark started his “Rock’n New Years Eve” which was very entertaining and a lot of fun, but it was just not the same. Over time things change, but we can still have fond memories of those “Good Old Days.”
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