Monday, September 7, 2015

The Jerry LewisTelethon

Today is Labor Day in the United States, a holiday that has been celebrated on the first Monday in September since the 1880's.

In my childhood, one of the traditions of Labor Day was something which no longer exists, thanks to the Internet and social media.

For many years, starting in my native New York City, comedian Jerry Lewis (now in his late 80's) used to host a Labor Day telethon. 

The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day telethon was part of my later childhood.  It started in New York City in 1966, and went nationwide soon after.  Jerry Lewis left in 2011, and the telethon, in a vastly shrunken form, survived until 2014.

But many baby boomers remember it.

The purpose of this telethon was to raise money for a charity that existed to fight a condition called muscular dystrophy.  Hour after hour Jerry would tell stories designed to make people feel sorry for the children with this condition (there are many, many adults, too, who somehow never got onto the show, and there is still no cure), which eventually were called "Jerry's Kids".  As the hours passed, Jerry got more tired, more cranky, and the stories more pathetic.

A toteboard, starting in 1976, totaled up the contributions, and there would be cutaways to local volunteers taking phone calls.

There was something about watching this hour after hour, and being able to tune in at any time, and there Jerry and friends still were.

Celebrities performed.

Drummer Buddy Rich and Jerry Lewis battle on the drums, followed by an incredible Buddy Rich drum solo.  The clip is about six minutes long but well worth it.

Here is the ex-Beatle John Lennon, in 1972.

Jerry would end the telethon by singing "You'll Never Walk Alone."

Eventually, disability activists started to call for the end of the show.

Times have changed - for the better, I feel, as the sister in law of a man who is developmentally disabled.  I don't think people with disabilities should be shown as objects of pity.  Nor should they be portrayed as "cripples".  They are people.  But, back then, attitudes were so different.  Sometimes, it is hard to explain to people who weren't alive in that era, and I am not here to defend that part of what Jerry Lewis did.  It was acceptable in the context of its time, but that time is no longer our time.

This show created many magic moments and performances.  Many people still miss it.

Now, with crowdfunding and viral events like the Ice Bucket Challenge, the national charity telethon is a thing of the past.  But in a way, I wish I could turn on my set...and, somehow, find Jerry there again.

This is a Monday post for Everyday Gyaan's #Septemberchallenge.


  1. I remember it, too, and haven't thought about it for a very long time. Yes, times and attitudes have changed.

  2. I've watched a lot of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin movies growing up, Alana. And yes, you're right about so much of that humour being unacceptable today.

  3. We used to watch that all the time, morning until night. It was actually pretty good entertainment!

  4. I do remember it, but I rarely watched it.

  5. Jerry Lewis, is what you call the good classic oldies. Is like people like him give us great memories to hold on.

  6. I just hope you're able to live the moment you truly want to..! Talking to Jerry Lewis, it was one hell of entertainment which is missing right now.. But that is how is it.. times have changed, attitude has changed.. everything is changed!

  7. Isn't it strange how our values and ideals change over time? I cringe when I watch some of the old television shows. I remember Jerry but never saw that particular show. Even now, some people turn away when they see someone who is disabled. They can't bear the sight of their odd body. This particular problem might take a long time to overcome.

  8. The last few years of the Telethon, they tried to show how MDA raised money to improve the quality of life for people with the disease, showing what they could do despite their disability, rather than making them look helpless and pathetic, but by then ...

    Jerry went on tour a few years ago, did a string of appearances to discuss his comedy and his life. He was never one of my favorites. My boyfriend is a big fan. We went to see him. It was an entertaining evening.


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