Monday, September 5, 2011

Who’s Kids

Do you like a good mystery? Here’s one for you: why wasn’t Jerry Lewis on what used to be known as the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon?

Comedian/actor/entertainer Jerry Lewis began hosting telethons to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1952 and took it nationwide as an annual Labor Day Weekend event in the late 1960s. Jerry was well-known and popular then; muscular dystrophy was not. He combined the idea of a marathon, a long endurance event, with televised entertainment and virtually invented a now-popular fund-raising form known as a telethon (or radiothon). He brought awareness for a medical condition and ultimately has raised more than $2.5 billion to help find a cure. Children living with the variety of muscular diseases under the MDA umbrella became known as Jerry’s Kids.

Watching the Jerry Lewis Telethon was an annual Labor Day Weekend tradition for many families, including mine. In the event’s early years most cities had only three or four television stations, not the three or four hundred options we have now, so many people watched. It was rare to find that much entertainment all in one place. The endurance aspect was an added plus; it usually featured more than 20 hours of non-stop entertainment and charitable fund-raising.

In recent years the Telethon was more difficult to find. Many local affiliates didn’t carry the whole thing, opting to join in during late night hours or closer to the end. Even with the addition of texting and Facebook donation opportunities, totals were down. So earlier this year MDA announced that the Telethon would only be six hours long and that this was Jerry’s last year as host. Apparently Jerry himself didn’t confirm it would be his last and he publicly blasted some of the co-hosts. A month ago MDA announced that Jerry would not host this year. There are conflicting reports about the reason. MDA is silent on the matter.

So how did the Telethon do yesterday, in six hours instead of twenty and without Jerry Lewis as host? The final total was $61.5 million, the third highest in its history and slightly higher than last year. You could say the event did just fine without Jerry or you could point out a fact about fund-raisers like this: most of the money is raised in advance and the total is updated as checks are presented. The real indication of Jerry’s impact will come next year, with a full year of Lewis-less fund-raising.

I have mixed feelings about Jerry and his absence. I care about the MDA organization and have done my share of collecting money for them. I saw some of Jerry’s movies as a very young child and watched television specials about his career and admired him for surviving as long as he did. But he has become very cynical over the years, publically insulting some of the very people who helped bring in the bucks. Maybe MDA was afraid of having him on the air live and uncensorable. Maybe he would have made a fool of himself and hurt the charity in some way. Maybe he has become a public figure who didn’t know when to go private – isn’t the key to go out while you’re on top and not while you’re hanging on by a thread?

Mostly I guess I’m just sad to see another tradition disappear. If Jerry is done, who’s kids are they now?

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