There was a rather sad announcement this past week. It received little coverage but signaled the end of an era. The MDA announced they’d no longer be holding their annual Labor Day Telethon which up until this decade had been a fixture on American television sets every Labor Day. Interest and support has waned until now, it is almost non-existent. I can remember in the days before cable, it was almost impossible to find a station that wasn’t broadcasting the fundraiser.
The telethon was started by the comedian Jerry Lewis back in the 1950’s. It ran for basically three days straight, was broadcast live, and every entertainer under the sun volunteered his time to sing a song, tell a joke, do a dance, play a number, often at 3 a.m. to help the cause. By the time Labor Day ended, the people on the show had to have their eyes propped open but year after year tons of money was raised to fight Muscular Dystrophy. We all got use to seeing ‘Jerry’s Kids’ – those suffering from the disease – wheeled out onto the show to help make the plea.
Jerry Lewis raised over 2 BILLION DOLLARS for the cause during his years on the show and now that show is gone. The MDA and Lewis parted company about 5 years ago. I’m not sure anyone really knows what happened, but Lewis has been in declining health the past decade or so anyway. I suspect, the effort became too much to carry on. After he left the show, interest waned each year until now the MDA has given up the effort.
I was never a huge fan of Lewis’ comedy. He was always more popular in France than in the States though when he and Dean Martin started out, they did six shows a day to sold out crowds. Think about that – six shows a day. Now if an entertainer does two hours they act like they ran a marathon. I can’t recall the last time I flipped channels and saw a Lewis movie. I think TCM shows them a couple times a year but outside of that, his work, like the telethon, has faded into the past.
It doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter that Jerry Lewis has never publicly stated why he got involved in helping fight the disease. He’s kept it private all this time. The only thing that matters is the good he did while he had the chance and the people he helped along the way. As the MDA telethon becomes a footnote in television history, we owe a huge, MERCI MR. LEWIS!