Remembering the Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon
MDA TELETHONS: PRO OR CON?
Remember the Jerry Lewis Telethons? Every Labor Day, they’d run for hours on television raising money for children afflicted with muscular dystrophy (MD).
Growing up, the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon was an annual ritual.
Joyous, annoying, camp, shameless, magical, memorable, dull — all those adjectives apply.
Sometimes, the telethon was must-see TV. Most of the time, clocking in at 21 hours straight on live television, Lewis onstage puffing away constantly on a lit cigarette, it was a seemingly endless parade of D-List celebrities interspersed with gutwrenching promo pieces that critics insisted made the handicapped objects of pity. At its height in 1976, which was watched at least in part by 85 million people, the MDA Telethon was bigger than The Tonight Show.
The MDA Labor Day Telethon ran from 1966 until 2010 when the event’s grandfatherly patriarch, Jerry Lewis was rudely told it was time to hand over the microphone. That pretty much ended the telethon, though there have been attempts to rekindle the spectacle which raised hundreds of millions over the years. No doubt, Lewis was an immensely talented performer, perfectly suited as the conduit to host. He was the iconic face of the event, so much so everyone called the objects of the spectacle, “Jerry’s Kids.”
This isn’t intended as a criticism of Lewis or the MDA Telethon. But I still have some questions. Was this all really a good thing?
One presumes muscular dystrophy is still with us. It hasn’t been cured. Honestly, it’s not something I’ve thought about in a long time. Perhaps that’s the real power of these charity events and telethons, which is bringing special needs to the public’s attention. That’s certainly a good thing. Better to be aware than ignored.
But I still wish to raise a few points for discussion: What happened to all that money? Who got it? Where did it go? On average, MDA Telethons raised about $60 million a year, sometimes more. Remember the huge $$$ tote board onstage that was constantly up ticking to a monetary goal, and then once certain thresholds were crossed, mini-New Year’s Eve celebrations would break out while the audience cheered and the band played and confetti flew, at least until the next $10 million cycle was reached.
Some live moments were riveting and cringeworthy, at the same time. Every few hours, it seemed, some local kid was invited up on stage clutching a piggy bank. Or, a 7-year-old girl forked over the entirety of the $42.65 in quarters, dimes, and nickels she raised for MDA by running a lemonade stand. These instances were heartwarming, but also bizarre given the executive base salary of MDA’s president earns $508,000 a year. Get out there and sell some more lemonade, kid.
Many advocates for the disabled, including some of “Jerry’s Kids,” gradually came to despise the MDA Telethon, despite its very best intentions. They claimed the telethon used handicapped children as props. Some critics even claimed the portrayal of victim-children widened the divide between able-bodied people and the disabled. Some of the images that were shown even triggered fear.
There was also intense debate within MDA about diverting the public’s attention to cures to “normalize” people with disabilities, which entirely ignored more urgent issues like providing accessible buildings, transportation, employment opportunities, and other basic rights. It also paid little attention to adults. Despite about 70 percent of all people with MD being adults, the telethon solely promoted children and did not fully represent the real lives of people who lived with MD.
Still, it’s hard to argue with the impact of the MDA Telethon and its legacy as a cultural force.
Many MDA Telethons were held in Las Vegas. I attended one towards the end, which was at the South Point Casino inside the main showroom. It was free and the audience could come and go as they pleased. I was at the casino for another reason but went into the showroom purely as a curiosity, and there he was — Jerry Lewis was on stage with Ed McMahon as his sidekick. I think he was interviewing the old film star, Mitzi Gaynor. It’s wasn’t exactly like seeing The Beatles, but it was still pretty cool. The spectacle reflected the whole embodiment of Americana — grand showmanship, crassness, superficiality, and genuine need, all revolving around money. I stayed for maybe an hour. The showroom was half full, if that. Empty seats? How could this be? That’s Jerry Lewis up there. It seemed the MDA Telethon had run its course. The final hurrah.
Today is Labor Day, but I’ll also remember this as the day of the MDA Telethon for all its awkward splendor.