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Friday, August 30, 2013

Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon

Okay, so is August over yet? Almost? Okay. I think I can get through these last two days.

I'll be honest with you. August has completely sucked monkey balls. And, yes, I did just utter the words “monkey balls” twice in this blog already. That's how badly August sucked.

I know Green Day warbled some song about waking them up when September ends, but as far as I am concerned, I am really looking forward to the month of September. After all, it can't be much worse than August was!

Especially since I have some time off of work coming up in September...which is always a welcome thing.

So, since I'm really looking forward to September, I thought that I would feature a theme that has September written all over it. A program that used to air every September. A program that was kind of a double-edged sword of sorts.

You see, this long-running program had a great cause behind it. It helped raise money for medical research and facilities necessary to help treat diseases affecting muscle control and the nervous system, and it often had some interesting entertainment coming out to perform in hopes that people would be generous with their hearts and wallets that would aid in finding a cure.

But here's where the downside comes it. The show would always air during Labour Day Weekend. And in Ontario, Canada, where I was born, raised, and currently living in, Labour Day weekend meant the end of summer, and the beginning of a new school year.

Yeah, it was official. Every time we saw Jerry Lewis on television, we knew that it wouldn't be long after that before the school bell rang for another year, and we would be trapped in a classroom for six and a half hours each day.

Yes, today's blog topic is all about The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. Or, at least, that was the name that the show went by for nearly fifty years. After Jerry Lewis retired as host of the show in 2010, the show changed its name to “The MDA Show of Strength”.

(And yes, I know in Canada, we add an extra U to the word labour, but for continuity's sake, we're going with the American spelling just for today.)

Now, currently, there are a rotating group of hosts that run the event. Currently, the line-up of stars who host the program are former Entertainment Tonight hostess Jann Carl, current Entertainment Tonight hostess Nancy O'Dell, and Days of our Lives actress Alison Sweeney. And currently “The MDA Show of Strength” only lasts at most two hours in length. This year, the program is airing on ABC this upcoming September 1 for just two hours in length.

Which pales in comparison to the near TWENTY-TWO hours that the telethon used to run prior to 2011. I don't know how the telethon worked in other time zones in North America, but here in Ontario, the program would begin at approximately nine in the evening on the night before Labour Day, and run straight through until seven in the evening on Labour Day. After the telethon concluded, the brand new season of “Wheel of Fortune” would begin airing new episodes shortly after that.

And, I don't know how the telethon worked in various cities and various affiliates, but I'll explain how things worked in my neck of the woods. The telethon would air on our CBS affiliate, which in my town comes from Watertown, New York (WWNY-TV Cable 7), and while Jerry Lewis' segments would air, we'd see telephone numbers to call in order to pledge a donation towards a cure for muscular dystrophy. And after about ninety minutes or so, the show would shift over to a local affiliate, where we would see two hosts interviewing local heroes who have raised money all year long for MDA, as well as the various volunteers who were taking phone calls. On the affiliate I watched the telethon on, our hosts were Mel Busler and Cindy Habeeb. It kind of sparked a little bit of a betting game between members of my family as we would all predict just how many times Cindy Habeeb would change her outfit throughout the twenty-two hour long broadcast. I don't ever remember winning, but it was a fun game to play.

But I bet you don't know how those local cutaways originated on the telethon, do you? In fact, I bet some of you don't know how the telethon began, do you? Fear not? I've done all of my research for today, and I have all the answers for you.

As far as official records go, the very first Jerry Lewis Telethon was broadcast on the weekend of September 4 and 5, 1966. But the true story is that the telethon actually originated fourteen years earlier, in 1952. Back then, Jerry Lewis began hosting mini-telethons to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Associations of America as a favour to a staff member who had worked with Lewis and Dean Martin on the set of “The Colgate Comedy Hour” who wanted awareness raised for the disease. Throughout the 1950s, Lewis would host four hour long telethons in a variety of locations in the New York City area, its affiliates happily donating the time to broadcast the events.

By the mid-1960s, the mini-telethons became such a success that MDAA thought about doing a telethon that lasted an entire day. Jerry Lewis instantly agreed to host the event.

Of course, organizers of the event were left puzzled over when to host the telethon. After all, it had to be at a time in which local affiliates could turn over airtime for such an event. Eventually, it was decided that the only time that the show could be broadcast was during the Labour Day Weekend. And, initially, this worried people in New York City. Labour Day Weekend was a long weekend, and it was expected that many people would be away from their television sets to enjoy the final weekend of summer. Many people expected the telethon to be a complete failure, and New York City officials were even reluctant to issue MDAA a fundraising permit to host the event. Luckily, MDAA got that permit just in the nick of time. But the real test came on September 4, 1966, when the inaugural Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon aired on WNEW-TV, filming live from New York's Americana Hotel.

Just to give you perspective on how much money the telethon raised that first year, consider this. The original tote board that the telethon used had enough digits to display six numbers. Therefore, the highest the board could display was $999,999.

So when the telethon ended with just over one million dollars collected, Jerry Lewis actually had to grab a bucket of paint and physically paint a number one in front of the total!

(For reference, that first year the telethon raised $1,002,114.)

It seemed as though Jerry Lewis and MDA certainly proved everyone wrong. The following year, the telethon raised even more money than the year before. Celebrities came onto the show to offer their support for the cause and singers would appear on the program to entertain the crowd. This prompted other affiliates to show interest in telecasting the telethon as well. By 1969, Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, and New Bedford also began broadcasting the show. The groups of stations that signed on to show the telethon were grouped under the name of “The Love Network”, because all of them were joining together to raise money for a common goal – the eradication of all muscular dystrophy and its associated diseases and conditions.

TRIVIA: Remember how I talked about the affiliate that I watched the telethon on breaking into programming to showcase local heroes? That tradition came about in 1968, when Rochester's WHEC network began the tradition in between performances on the Jerry Lewis Telethon to showcase local fundraising efforts. When it was revealed that the Rochester affiliated had more donations pledged to that station than any others within “The Love Network”, the decision was made for other networks to follow suit.

The 1970s was a very huge decade for the telethon. At the beginning of the year, San Francisco and Los Angeles had joined the growing number of affiliates joining “The Love Network”, making the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon a coast-to-coast effort. In 1973, the home base for the telethon moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, and that same year, the telethon broke a record, earning twelve million dollars. Once again, Jerry Lewis had to paint a number one at the beginning of the tote board because there wasn't enough room to incorporate all the digits of the final total! By 1976, the telethon was simulcast on 213 television stations, effectively bringing the show to the entire continental United States, all ten provinces in Canada, and some areas of Mexico. How's that for a “Love Network”?

And you have to give Jerry Lewis credit. For the first couple of decades of the show, he stayed up the entire night to host the whole telethon. Twenty one and a half hours entertaining the crowd, announcing and chatting with celebrities, and accepting large oversized cheques for thousands of dollars in support of MDA. This tradition continued until 1983, when Jerry cut back his commitment to sixteen hours so that he could have some rest (he had surgery the previous year). Jerry would continue this tradition until health problems in 1999 caused him to cut back his appearance time again, this time only appearing at the first few hours of the telethon, and at the conclusion of the telethon. This continued for the next eleven years until 2010, when Jerry Lewis stepped down as host.

But during the time in which Jerry Lewis was resting, he did have help as a variety of co-hosts stepped in to relieve him. That's how Jann Carl, Nancy O'Dell, and Alison Sweeney got involved with the current MDA program. They all started off as co-hosts for the telethon.

Other celebrities who have helped out at the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon over the years were Casey Kasem, Elayne Boosler, Leeza Gibbons, John Tesh, Larry King, Tony Orlando, Marilyn McCoo, and Billy Gilmer.

But of course, you couldn't have a telethon without an announcer or co-host. For the first few years of the telethon, game show announcer Johnny Olson (best known as the original announcer of “The Price is Right” until 1985) was the announcer/co-host. But in the early 1970s, Ed McMahon took over as permanent co-host. The kinship between Ed and Jerry was legendary, and their chemistry together was absolutely remarkable. McMahon would hold this position for thirty-five years until his death in June 2009.

Of course, the main goal of the telethon was to raise awareness for muscular dystrophy. Every year, the MDA would name an MDA Goodwill Ambassador (a child usually between the ages of four and sixteen that had some form of muscular dystrophy). They were also known as “Jerry's Kids” because Jerry Lewis would often become emotional and inspired by their stories of survival, as well as laughing along with them at the positive attitudes that these children had even though they were battling a serious disease.

Seriously, guys...we could all learn something from those kids.

In fact, if you click HERE, you can watch a montage of some of the most memorable of these MDA Goodwill Ambassadors. Perhaps one of the most well-known kids of recent years was one Mattie Stepanek, a young boy who suffered from dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy, and who lost all of his siblings to the disease as well, but didn't let that stop him from publishing five books of poetry and one book of essays – one of which made the New York Times best sellers' list! Sadly, the disease took Mattie's life in June 2004 at the age of thirteen. But in those thirteen years, Mattie Stepanek changed the poem at a time.

I think that's why the show was a huge success. Some people may say that the MDA and Jerry Lewis exploited these children, but I never saw it that way at all. I think if anything, watching the positivity and the fight in these kids to keep living while searching for a cure...that was inspiring. And, I suppose looking at it from perspective, it makes having a tough day at work, or spilling your coffee on your new outfit, or missing the bus seem a little bit insignificant.

Jerry Lewis may not host the show anymore, and the telethon is definitely not like it used to be. But the fact remains that over the last forty-seven years, the telethon has generated a total of over two BILLION dollars. And although a cure still has not been found as of yet, the money raised for the organization has ensured that people who are diagnosed with the disease have more treatment options available to prolong lives, as well as testing experimental new treatments that could help erase muscular dystrophy from the world forever. That makes a huge difference.

So, to conclude this entry...let's have a look at a few of the more memorable moments of the telethon.

Let's start with 1987, which is probably the earliest telethon that I can remember watching. Could you imagine Mr. T being in the same room as Sammy Davis Jr.? It happened! Take a look!

Or, how about 1981, when Frank Sinatra stole the show with his performance of “I've Got the World on a String”?

Or, how about this epic moment also featuring Frank Sinatra that included a special guest from Jerry Lewis' past at the 1976 telethon? It remains the most talked about moment of the telethon's entire history. Just watch it and see what I mean.

To make a donation to MDA, just click on the following link below.

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