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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September 2, 2012 - 4:25am
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