Monday, September 1, 2008

Jerry Lewis Telethon: A Labor Day Tradition

When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey Labor day meant a couple of things: A picnic with family & friends, school would be starting soon, and the Jerry Lewis MDA telethon. The one that holds a place in my heart to this day is the MDA telethon.

The 21 1/2 broadcast was a "must see" institution around my house. My parents would make sure they watched the beginning before going to bed on Sunday night. When the TV was turned on Labor Day morning it would stay tuned to watch Jerry & "his kids" all day long.
About 5:45 or so the entire family and anyone else who was at our house for a picnic would start to gather in front of the TV in anticipation of the telethon's final minutes.

While the entire program was filled with touching moments and great entertainment the last 45 minutes were usually the best. Jerry would bring out onto the stage one final time the MDA poster child to make an appeal to the public for help. This was where you could witness for yourself Jerry's love for "his kids" through his relationship with this one child. It was always a touching moment.
It was during this time that the marquee guest would perform. Some years it was Frank Sinatra, others it was Sammy Davis Jr. In 1976 it was Dean Martin. The comedy team had their first face-to-face reunion in 2o years; a now infamous moment in television history.
Not only did the quality of the entertainment go up near the end of the program. The donations to the MDA usually skyrocketed. Many times in those last 45 minutes announcer Ed McMahon had to interupt Jerry to allow the drums to usher in the changing of the numbers to reveal a new, and often record breaking, number on the infamous "tote" board. At times the ensuing celebration, confetti and all, rivaled New Year's Eve in Times Square.
Finally as it came closer to the end of the broadcast, with about 5 minutes to go, the ballroom of which ever Las Vegas hotel it originated from became quite. It was time for Jerry to close the show. He usually spent 2 minutes summing up the efforts of all who had participated and expressing his gratitude to his viewers. Then the lights went down, Jerry took center stage sitting on a wooden stool in just a single spotlight. He closed the show with a voice shaking with emotion as he sang the song "You'll Never Walk Alone." It was always so sincere just writing about it now brings a tear to my eye. It was a moment we all enjoyed sharing as a family every year.
Since moving to Kentucky 9 years ago watching the MDA telethon has become less of a tradition. My Kentucky family doesn't seem to have the same sense of awe about the telethon that we did back in Pennsylvania. Perhaps that's because they never had the chance to watch it as I did while I was growing up. There is only one station that carries it here and that's on cable. I've miss the ending most years here because the station, WGN out of Chicago, usually has a Cubs game on instead of the end of the telethon. I really miss seeing it.
Again this year the MDA telethon raised over $65 million in private donations in less than 22 hours. Even at 82 years old Lewis continues to lead one of the most successful and consistent charitable organizations in the history of this country. The telethon is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the work Jerry Lewis puts into MDA. I will always admire him for his devotion; now 43 years and counting. That's why on Labor Day I will always think of Jerry Lewis & his kids.

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