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A Brief History of the Jerry Lewis Telethon

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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.

Background

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.

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11 Secrets of Bodyguards
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When CEOs, celebrities, and the extremely wealthy need personal protection, they call in men and women with a particular set of skills. Bodyguards provide a physical barrier against anyone wishing their clients harm, but there’s a lot more to the job—and a lot that people misunderstand about the profession. To get a better idea of what it takes to protect others, Mental Floss spoke with several veteran security experts. Here’s what they told us about being in the business of guaranteeing safety.

1. BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER.

When working crowd control or trying to corral legions of screaming teenagers, having a massive physical presence comes in handy. But not all "close protection specialists" need to be the size of a professional wrestler. “It really depends on the client,” says Anton Kalaydjian, the founder of Guardian Professional Security in Florida and former head of security for 50 Cent. “It’s kind of like shopping for a car. Sometimes they want a big SUV and sometimes they want something that doesn’t stick out at all. There’s a need for a regular-looking guy in clothes without an earpiece, not a monster.”

2. GUNS (AND FISTS) ARE PRETTY MUCH USELESS.

An armed bodyguard pulls a gun out of a holster
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Depending on the environment—protecting a musician at a concert is different from transporting the reviled CEO of a pharmaceutical company—bodyguards may or may not come armed. According to Kent Moyer, president and CEO of World Protection Group and a former bodyguard for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, resorting to gunplay means the security expert has pretty much already failed. “People don’t understand this is not a business where we fight or draw guns,” Moyer says. “We’re trained to cover and evacuate and get out of harm’s way. The goal is no use of force.” If a guard needs to draw a gun to respond to a gun, Moyer says he’s already behind. “If I fight, I failed. If I draw a gun, I failed.”

3. SOMETIMES THEY’RE HIRED TO PROTECT EMPLOYERS FROM EMPLOYEES.

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Workplace violence has raised red flags for companies who fear retribution during layoffs. Alan Schissel, a former New York City police sergeant and founder of Integrated Security, says he dispatches guards for what he calls “hostile work termination” appointments. “We get a lot of requests to provide armed security in a discreet manner while somebody is being fired,” he says. “They want to be sure the individual doesn’t come back and retaliate.”

4. SOME OF THEM LOVE TMZ.

For protection specialists who take on celebrity clients, news and gossip site TMZ.com can prove to be a valuable resource. “I love TMZ,” Moyer says. “It’s a treasure trove for me to see who has problems with bodyguards or who got arrested.” Such news is great for client leads. Moyer also thinks the site’s highly organized squad of photographers can be a good training scenario for protection drills. “You can look at paparazzi as a threat, even though they’re not, and think about how you’d navigate it.” Plus, having cameras at a location before a celebrity shows up can sometimes highlight information leaks in their operation: If photographers have advance notice, Moyer says, then security needs to be tightened up.

5. THEY DON’T LIVE THE LIFE YOU THINK THEY DO.

A bodyguard stands next to a client
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Because guards are often seen within arm’s reach of a celebrity, some think they must be having the same experiences. Not so. “A big misconception is that we’re living the same life as celebrities do,” Kalaydjian says. “Yes, we’re on a private jet sometimes, but we’re not enjoying the amenities. We might live in their house, but we’re not enjoying their pool. You stay to yourself, make your rounds.” Guards that get wrapped up in a fast-paced lifestyle don’t tend to last long, he says.

6. SOMETIMES THEY’RE JUST THERE FOR SHOW.

For some, being surrounded by a squad of serious-looking people isn’t a matter of necessity. It’s a measure of status on the level of an expensive watch or a fast car. Firms will sometimes get calls from people looking for a way to get noticed by hiring a fleet of guards when there's no threat involved. “It’s a luxury amenity,” Schissel says. “It’s more of a ‘Look at me, look at them’ thing,” agrees Moyer. “There’s no actual threat. It’s about the show. I turn those down. We do real protection.”

7. THEY CAN MAKE THEIR CLIENT'S DAY MORE EFFICIENT.

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Because guards will scope out destinations in advance, they often know exactly how to enter and exit locations without fumbling for directions or dealing with site security. That’s why, according to Moyer, CEOs and celebrities can actually get more done during a work day. “If I’m taking you to Warner Bros., I know which gate to go in, I’ve got credentials ahead of time, and I know where the bathrooms are.” Doing more in a day means more money—which means a return on the security investment.

8. “BUDDYGUARDS” ARE A PROBLEM.

When evaluating whether or not to take on a new employee, Kalaydjian weeds out anyone looking to share in a client’s fame. “I’ve seen guys doing things they shouldn’t,” he says. “They’re doing it to be seen.” Bodyguards posting pictures of themselves with clients on social media is a career-killer: No one in the industry will take a “buddyguard” seriously. Kalaydjian recalls the one time he smirked during a 12-year-stint guarding the same client, something so rare his employer commented on it. “It’s just not the side you portray on duty.”

9. SOCIAL MEDIA MAKES THEIR JOB HARDER.

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High-profile celebrities maintain their visibility by engaging their social media users, which often means posting about their travels and events. For fans, it can provide an interesting perspective into their routine. For someone wishing them harm, it’s a road map. “Sometimes they won’t even tell me, and I’ll see on Snapchat they’ll be at a mall at 2 p.m.,” Kalaydjian says. “I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

10. NOT EVERY CELEBRITY IS PAYING FOR THEIR OWN PROTECTION.

The next time you see a performer surrounded by looming personal protection staff, don’t assume he or she is footing the bill. “A lot of celebrities can’t afford full-time protection,” Moyer says, referring to the around-the-clock supervision his agency and others provide. “Sometimes, it’s the movie or TV show they’re doing that’s paying for it. Once the show is over, they no longer have it, or start getting the minimum.”

11. THEY DON’T LIKE BEING CALLED “BODYGUARDS.”

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Few bodyguards will actually refer to themselves as bodyguards. Moyer prefers executive protection agents, because, he says, bodyguard tends to carry a negative connotation of big, unskilled men. “There is a big group of dysfunctional people with no formal training who should not be in the industry,” he says. Sometimes, a former childhood friend can become “security,” a role they’re not likely to be qualified for. Moyer and other firms have specialized training courses, with Moyer's taking cues from Secret Service protocols. But Moyer also cautions that agencies enlisting hyper-driven combat specialists like Navy SEALs or SWAT team members aren't the answer, either. “SEALs like to engage and fight, destroying the bad guy. Our goal is, we don’t want to be in the same room as the bad guy.”

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
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Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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