Mental Floss

A Brief History of the Jerry Lewis Telethon

Kara Kovalchik

There's probably a special place in Hell reserved for those of us who watch Jerry Lewis's annual Labor Day Telethon strictly for laughs. After all, Jerry's humanitarian efforts over the years have raised over a billion dollars for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, money which not only pays for research but also medical equipment and recreational camps for patients. But between Lewis' schmaltz, the live entertainment, the open bar in the Green Room and the sleep-deprived floor crew during the wee hours of the morning, hilarity of some sort always seems to ensue. Of course (in the interest of balanced reporting) we'll admit that there are plenty of somber moments as well"¦

Why Labor Day?

The first MDA Telethon was a 16-hour affair held at Carnegie Hall in 1955 and had a limited broadcast on DuMont station WABD. The television feed, however, wasn't interactive and mainly served to encourage folks to go down to Carnegie Hall and donate money.

By 1966 both TV and telephone technology had marched on and MDA decided to take advantage of the improvements; the organization proposed a 19-hour event, hosted by Lewis, to be broadcast from the Americana Hotel with a bank of telephone operators at the ready to accept donations from all over the New York broadcast area. They had to jump through a number of hoops first, including finding a station willing to donate its time and facilities. WNEW finally agreed, but the only timeslot they had available fell over Labor Day weekend. The city then balked at issuing a fund-raising permit, believing that most New Yorkers would be outside having fun over the holiday weekend and not watching television. The show ultimately did go on, and the telethon raised an amazing $1,002,114.

The tote board was not equipped to display dollar amounts in the millions, so Lewis had to climb a ladder and paint the numeral one in front of the other digits.

Martin and Lewis: Together Again

Jerry Lewis had been raising money for MDA long before his telethon hit the airwaves. And in those early days, his partner-in-comedy, Dean Martin, was right there with him, performing at various charity events to raise money for Muscular Dystrophy research. The comedy team of Martin and Lewis had been a powerhouse for 10 years, and their acrimonious parting in 1956 was a huge bombshell to Hollywood and fans alike. The two didn't speak for 20 years until mutual pal Frank Sinatra arranged a tearful yet somewhat tense reunion during Jerry's 1976 Telethon:

The Entertainment

The Telethon was always a bit top-heavy with Borscht Belt-type entertainers, but occasionally some stellar acts donated their time for Jerry's Kids. This clip of the Jackson Five is interesting not only for their high-energy live performance of "Dancing Machine," but also because Michael wasn't yet the almighty mystical MICHAEL JACKSON and the audience wasn't convulsed with hysteria by his mere presence. He had to actually work to get them on their feet.

John Lennon had always been a soft touch when it came to philanthropy, but most of the time he preferred to donate quietly without recognition or publicity. By 1972, however, his image was in serious need of repair "“ his name was now associated with extreme radical Yippie activists like Jerry Rubin and Angela Davis. Not the best company to keep when petitioning for a Green Card. In an effort to show the world (well, the U.S. government, anyway) that he was really a Nice Guy, he made a number of public appearances supporting various charities, including an appearance on Jerry's Telethon:

How did Jerry make sure he had more than just insomniacs and second-shift workers tuned in during the overnight hours of his telethon? One tactic was to have TV Guide list all the acts scheduled to appear but not list the specific times they'd be on. Maybe I'm seeing a plot where there is none, but"¦ back in 1979 I was a major Kiss fan, and I was naturally excited when I saw them listed among the Shecky Greenes and Buddy Hacketts that were going to appear on the telethon that Labor Day weekend. I didn't have a VCR at the time, so I had to watch the entire show, which meant staying up all night if I didn't want to miss them. And when they finally appeared, on Monday freakin' afternoon, they were on for less than thirty freakin' seconds. Not that I'm still bitter or anything.

Anyone who's read Mommie Dearest will probably doubt Joan Crawford's sincerity during her emotional performance on the 1968 telethon. Does she really have a place in her cold, cold heart for the disabled, or is she playing to the press and any casting directors in the audience? And is she gently leading Christina off stage, or yanking her by the arm?

The late Ed McMahon started working with Jerry on the telethon back in 1967. For the next 42 years, Ed would act not only as Jerry's on-air sparring partner (and occasional verbal punching bag), but he was also the glue that held the whole show together. Ed introduced guests, calculated donations in his head, took over hosting duties when Jerry caught the occasional 20-minute catnap, and hid Dean Martin in his dressing room in order to preserve the surprise factor for that 1976 broadcast. Jerry was unpredictable, especially after the first few hours, so Ed had to be prepared to jump in at any moment to "rescue" the broadcast lest Lewis overstep any FCC boundaries. Even in 2008, when McMahon was 85 years old, he still remained on alert during the entire telethon. Here is one of those overnight moments when the floor director forget to order a change of cameras; Ed can be seen mouthing the words on Jerry's cue cards, keeping careful track of the action.

Local Color

The tradition of cutting away to local affiliates during the telethon began in 1969. During the previous year's broadcast, producers noticed that WHEC in Rochester had a significantly higher amount of pledges than any other New York station. A call was made to station manager Glover Delaney to see what, if anything, the station had done differently. He confessed that he'd cut away from the national broadcast for a few minutes each hour to show the local volunteers answering phones at his station. A new tradition was immediately born, one which was expanded to not only feature phone-answerers, but also local celebrities and sponsors. Showing individual markets how MDA was working in their community made the pledges pour in, according to MDA president Robert Ross.

Do you have any telethon memories? Have you ever pledged a large amount of money just to hear your name read on TV? Feel free to take time out from your Labor Day barbecue to chime in, and maybe also make a pledge to help Jerry's Kids.

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