September 3, 2012

Labor Day Memories: The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon

Today is Labor Day. And while most people associate Labor Day with going to the beach, sales at the mall, or the last summer barbecue, to me it is always associated with one thing - watching TV.  No, not the many marathons of various TV shows, but rather watching the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon.

As a young child, my dad introduced me to the comedic movies of Jerry Lewis.  Writer, director, and actor Jerry Lewis appeared in many comedy movies in the 50's and 60's, often exhibiting his trademark silly faces and physical gags.  My favorites were The Geisha Boy, The Bell Boy, Cinderfella, and The Nutty Professor (which was recently remade starring Eddie Murphy and is currently being adapting as a Broadway musical).  I used to watch his movies all the time, and I even owned many of them on VHS (back in the day before DVDs).

While I always admired Jerry Lewis as a comedian, my dad later introduced me to a more serious side of Jerry Lewis.  Every year since 1966, Jerry Lewis hosted a Labor Day telethon to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) to help fight over 40 types of neuromuscular diseases.  The telethon would air for 21 hours, starting Sunday night and continuing overnight through late afternoon on Labor Day Monday.  The show featured entertainment from various celebrities, as well as heartbreaking stories from those inflicted with the disease, in order to urge viewers to call in an donate.  I would always look forward to watching it each year, watching as much of it as I could throughout the weekend, and always being sure to catch Jerry's signature performance of "You'll Never Walk Alone" to close out the show.  I would also always donate each year to help the cause, which always raised millions of dollars to help fight the disease.

But last year (2011), everything changed.  First, MDA announced that the 21 hour telethon would be cut down to just 6 hours airing Sunday night (so it's not even on Labor Day anymore).  Then they announced that after 45 years, it would be Jerry Lewis's last year as host of the show.  But a few weeks before the telethon was set to air, it was announced that Jerry would not be appearing at all, and that he was no longer a part of the MDA.  It was unclear Jerry was fired or if he resigned, but for the first time since 1966, he was not a part of the show that once bore his name.  

And this year, 2012, that 6 hour show was cut down further to only a 3 hour prime-time show from 8-11 on Sunday night.  It was also renamed the "MDA Show of Strength", distancing itself from the "telethon" that it once was.  There was no host, no tote board, and most of the show was prerecorded.  I still watched last night, and I still donated to help the kids, and the show was enjoyable enough.  I suppose the changes were inevitable, as Jerry got older and less popular with the audience of today.    While Jerry's guests used to be his famous friends like Frank Sinatra and other popular stars of the time, during the last few years there were fewer big name guests, as the show was mostly made up of Vegas acts and dance troupes.  With the new shortened non-live version of the show, they did manage to get more popular performers (such as, Brandy, Carrie Underwood, All American Rejects, and Tim McGraw).  But it just wasn't the same.  The thrill for me was always watching Jerry Lewis.  While most of the show was very scripted and formatted, once Jerry got the mic you never knew what was going to come out of his mouth. It could be funny or heartfelt, but he was always entertaining to watch.  And as I watched each year as Jerry got older and older, I always assumed that Jerry would host until he died, and then they'd continue the telethon in his honor until a cure was found.  But that was not the case.  The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon ended in 2010 when he left the show.  The MDA Show of Strength is all that's left now, and while I'm glad to see the the fundraising efforts continue, Labor Day will never be the same.

Here is the end of the last Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon in 2010, Jerry Lewis fighting back tears to sing his trademark song "You'll Never Walk Alone" for what turned out to be the final time:

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