Getty Images
Getty Images

A Brief History of the Jerry Lewis Telethon

Getty Images
Getty Images

The National Muscular Dystrophy Association announced that in 2011, for the first time since 1966, Jerry Lewis would not be headlining the annual MDA Telethon for "Jerry's Kids." After earning more than $2 billion, the show was going on without him. Here's a look back at the origin of the telethon, some of the highlights, and what might have inspired Jerry to get involved.


TV's first telethon took place in 1949. It was New York's Damon Runyon Memorial Cancer Fund Telethon, hosted by Milton Berle. One of the guests on that very first telethon was a brash young comedian who appeared with his singing partner, Dean Martin. The young comic was, of course, Jerry Lewis. At the time, Martin and Lewis were the hottest act in all of show biz.

The comedy team later made an appearance at the 1952 Olympic Fund Telethon, hosted by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. There is surviving footage of this appearance by Martin and Lewis, and they are uninhibited, wild, and electric. Incredibly, when Martin and Lewis come on stage, Bing Crosby rushes off in fear. Crosby was terrified Lewis would pull off Crosby's toupee (!), and he never did reappear while the boys were on.

In the early 1950s, Lewis was asked to host a telethon for a little-known disease called muscular dystrophy. Lewis accepted and, together with Martin, put on the very first MD telethon.

The two hosted other telethons together until their split as a team in 1956. Martin went on to other things, but Lewis never stopped. Over the years, he hosted several other 4-hour MD telethons sans Martin, much shorter than the almost 24-hour telethons to which we've become accustomed.

The First Jerry Lewis Labor Day Weekend Telethon

In 1966, the first official Jerry Lewis Telethon for muscular dystrophy took place over the Labor Day weekend, broadcast from the Americana Hotel in New York. Some were skeptical about the success of the undertaking, as many people were not home on Labor Day. But surprisingly, the telethon was a huge success, raising just over one million dollars.

Big Spenders

Jerry Lewis's annual Labor Day telethons went on to raise more than 2 billion dollars in donations to fight muscular dystrophy. Lewis claimed his goal each year was to get "one dollar more" than the previous year. The biggest single donations over the years have come from the Firefighters Association, who have given more than $250,000 to the cause.

Nothing has hurt Lewis more than accusations that he has pocketed some of the donated money himself. He vigorously denies this claim, and he even swears he has given $7 million out of his own pocket to the cause. He has been accused--including by some who are stricken with MD--of exploiting his "kids," portraying them as pitiable victims who just need a big charity to take care of or cure them. Lewis has fought back against these charges, too.

Celebrity Guest Stars

Many of the biggest celebrities in show business have either hosted or appeared on Lewis's telethons over the years, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and three of the Beatles. (In John Lennon's appearance with wife Yoko Ono, he stated, "Jerry is one of our favorite comedians.") The ultra-reclusive Joe DiMaggio came on to answer the phones one year, and even a U.S. President--Ronald Reagan--made an appearance.

But the all-time highlight in telethon history was unequivocally the reunion of Jerry Lewis with his former partner Dean Martin in 1976, staged by their mutual friend Frank Sinatra. It was an incredible moment 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!"

Lewis has always worn his heart on his sleeve regarding his deep affection for his former partner, while Martin was always "Mr. Macho" and rarely displayed any kind of emotion in public. But if you watch the video, you will see Martin quickly sneak in a brief kiss on Lewis's cheek as they hug. (I've always felt this quick kiss was very telling about Martin's real affinity for his erstwhile partner.)

Why Did He Do It?

One of the biggest mysteries of all regarding his unceasing dedication to the Muscular Dystrophy Association is, "Why does Jerry do it?" Oddly, Lewis has never revealed to anyone the exact reason. While no one may ever know the real reason, a little-known story about Lewis is very telling.

When he was two years old, Lewis developed a strange and potentially crippling disease. According to Lewis, his beloved grandmother nursed him and, although a very strict Jew, cooked him bacon and "crammed it into his mouth" to help fight off the impending sickness. What potential disease it was we have no idea, but Lewis has stated this story is true. If so, the frightening memory of a debilitating disease may have had at least some impact on his tireless work in his fight against muscular dystrophy.

Chloe Efforn
John Lennon Was a Crazy Cat Lady
Chloe Efforn
Chloe Efforn

John Lennon was crazy about cats, and though he owned a couple of dogs (Sally and Bernard) over the years, he was better known for getting by with a little help from his feline friends.


Growing up, Lennon's beloved mother, Julia, had a named cat after Elvis Presley, whom Julia and John were both crazy about. The Lennons later realized they had misnamed Elvis when "he" gave birth to a litter of kittens in the cupboard, but they didn't change the cat's name based on that small mistake.


He had two other cats as a boy growing up in Liverpool: Tich and Sam. Tich passed away while Lennon was away at art school (which he attended from 1957 to 1960), and Sam was named after famous British diarist Samuel Pepys

4. TIM

One day, John Lennon found a stray cat in the snow, which his Aunt Mimi allowed him to keep. (John's Aunt Mimi raised him from a young boy through his late teenage years, and he affectionately referred to her as the Cat Woman.) He named the marmalade-colored half-Persian cat Tim.

Tim remained a special favorite of John's. Every day, he would hop on his Raleigh bicycle and ride to Mr. Smith's, the local fishmonger, where he would buy a few pieces of fish for Tim and his other cats. Even after John became famous as a Beatle, he would often call and check in on how Tim was doing. Tim lived a happy life and survived to celebrate his 20th birthday.


John and his first wife, Cynthia, had a cat named Mimi who was, of course, named after his Aunt Mimi. They soon got another cat, a tabby who they dubbed Babaghi. John and Cynthia continued acquiring more cats, eventually owning around 10 of them.


As a Beatle, John had a cat named Jesus. The name was most likely John's sarcastic response to his "the Beatles are bigger than Jesus" controversy of 1966. But he wasn't the only band member with a cat named Jesus: Paul McCartney once had a trio of kittens named Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.


In the mid-1970s, John had an affair with his secretary, May Pang. One day, the studio receptionist brought a box of kittens into the recording studio where John and May were. "No," John immediately told May, "we can't, we're traveling too much." But she picked up one of the kittens and put it over her shoulder. Then John started stroking the kitten and decided to keep it. At the end of the day, the only other kitten left was a little white one that was so loud no one else wanted it. So they adopted it as well and named the pair Major and Minor.


John owned a pair of black and white cats with his wife Yoko Ono. As befitting John's offbeat sense of humor, many places report he christened the white cat Pepper and the black one Salt.


John and Yoko also had two Russian Blue cats named Gertrude and Alice, who each met tragic ends. After a series of sicknesses, Gertrude was diagnosed with a virus that could become dangerous to their young son, Sean. John later said that he held Gertrude and wept as she was euthanized. 

Later, Alice jumped out of an open window in the Lennons' high-rise apartment at the Dakota and plunged to her death. Sean was present at the time of the accident, and he remembers it as the only time he ever saw his father cry.


In later years, John also owned three cats he named Misha, Sasha, and Charo. Always an artist at heart, John loved to sketch his many cats, and he used some of these pictures as illustrations in his books.

This piece originally ran in 2012.

Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
7 Famous Actors Who Starred in Obscure Short Films
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Well-known actors who can attract attention or lend prestige to film projects can often command significant salaries. Jack Nicholson, for example, reportedly made more than $50 million for portraying The Joker in 1989’s Batman after merchandising royalties were factored in. But performers don’t always opt for money—or even feature-length movies—if a filmmaker is persuasive enough. Here are several notable talents who agreed to appear in obscure short films for a variety of peculiar reasons.


Arguably one of the most successful leading men of the 20th century, Harrison Ford has always been candid about his criteria for film work. In addition to being intrigued by a role, he wants to be compensated. (“No, I got paid,” he told a talk show host who asked if he was nostalgic about returning to the Star Wars universe in 2015.) He apparently made an exception for Water to Wine, a 2004 amateur film shot by a group of snowboarders in Wyoming. Ford—who has a ranch in the state—accepted the role of “Jethro the Bus Driver” as a favor to the filmmakers, who were friends of his son, Malcolm. Ford’s sole request was that his name not appear in the credits.


Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston was shooting the feature film Cold Comes the Night in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy interrupted production. Rather than sit idle, the actor told the movie’s production assistants that if they wanted to try writing a short film, he’d shoot it immediately. Winner Brandon Polanco came up with Writer’s Block, a 13-minute black-and-white mood piece about an author wrestling with a lack of inspiration.


Billy Bob Thornton broke into Hollywood with his 1994 short film Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade that he later expanded into a full-length feature. That DIY approach may have helped director Jeff Lester entice the actor to star in The Last Real Cowboys, a short that featured Thornton as one of two main characters sitting next to a campfire. The production shot for just one day 50 miles outside of Las Vegas. 


A year after Star Wars: The Force Awakens crossed $2 billion at the box office, Oscar Isaac (who portrayed Poe Dameron) appeared in this eccentric short by director Brian Petsos. Isaac is Basil Stitt, a man who gets hit in the face with lightning and is convinced he will soon develop supernatural abilities. Isaac and Petsos previously worked on a feature film, Ticky Tacky.


The BBC’s Sherlock helped make Benedict Cumberbatch a highly recognizable screen presence worldwide, which in turn helped this short film raise and exceed its $40,000 budget via the Indiegogo platform. Cumberbatch portrays a British intelligence officer active during the Iraq War who is contacted by an American spy to repay a favor. Cumberbatch, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for The Imitation Game in 2015, also produced the film.


Two-time Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender co-stars in this tight heist thriller about two thieves who are forced to complete a job in total darkness. (Liam Cunningham, who plays Davos Seaworth on Game of Thrones, co-starred.) Director John Maclean knew Fassbender before the actor broke out in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds and convinced him to take the gig. The two later worked on the well-received 2015 Western Slow West.


The urban legends surrounding Murray’s puckish behavior are well-documented, from crashing karaoke parties to spontaneously tending bar. In 2012, Murray was filming a promotional video for a school in South Carolina attended by his son. Afterward, director David Smith asked if he could film Murray walking down a hall with crew members. He complied—and then kept walking, out of the building and into his car. 


More from mental floss studios