Jerry Lewis and His Telethon

Telethon ad from the early 70’s

The year was 1952. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were the stars of The Colgate Comedy Hour. A staff member asked Jerry to help out with a local four-hour telethon to raise funds for research into muscular dystrophy which was broadcast on WABD-TV, a New York station. Jerry responded to the request, and history began.

Jerry hosted several local telethons to fight MD. But it wasn’t until 1966 that the first all-day Labor Day telethon was aired.

New York officials were reluctant to issue a fund raising permit. They saw failure written all over the idea. New Yorkers weren’t home watching TV on Labor Day, they were at the lake! The beach! The park!

Nevertheless, the first telethon was approved, and the results were startling.

It went on for nineteen hours, and when it was up to the final tally, Jerry had to paint a 1 on the six-digit board. He had blown away expectations by raising $1,002,114! This money was all from a broadcast on but a single New York station. An annual tradition was born. So was a Boomer memory.

Jerry and Jackie Gleason on a telethon from the 50’s

The next year, the tally board was expanded to seven digits. The previous year’s record was broken by over a hundred thousand. In 1968, four more stations picked up the event, and the record climbed to 1.4 million. One of the stations broke in from time to time to a local announcer who was in front of a bank of volunteers answering phones on camera. That station, Rochester, NY’s WHEC, drew in more money than the others. The cutaway was born.

1970’s telethon had a network of 64 stations. The five million dollar barrier was broken for the first time. Additionally, union restrictions were lifted, allowing coast to coast live broadcasting. Viewers from LA to NYC were able to see the big show.

The telethon gained momentum each year. In 1973, it was broadcast for the first time from The Sahara in Las Vegas, and an eighth digit was used for the first time in proclaiming a take of $12,395,973, a massive jump of almost 35% from the previous show. Oh, and Jerry, once again, painted a 1 on the tally board by hand.

Sinatra reunites Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in 1975

The 1975 show was notable for a smile-inducing moment. Martin and Lewis had parted under less than amicable circumstances in 1956. They hadn’t spoken since then. But mutual friend Frank Sinatra shocked Lewis and the rest of the world by bringing Martin onto the stage in a teary-eyed reunion. Martin was doing his patented drunk act, but many suspect he was a lot more sober than he was putting on. If you listen closely to the Youtube clip, you can hear Jerry call Frank a son of a bitch. But the affection was genuine, and Dean and Jerry ended up good friends in their old age.

As the years wore on, Jerry had to make some adjustments. In 1999, he had to limit his onstage time to the first and last five hours. He has never suffered from the lack of volunteers to fill in for his absences.

2009 saw a tradition which began in the days of tiny black and white television screens move quite thoroughly into the 21st century by getting Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter involved with automated updates and the ability for donors to easily pledge online. 2010’s telethon allowed for an automatic $10 donation to be made via text.

The telethon’s biggest year so far was 2008, when it garnered $65,031,393. The bad economy be damned, 2010 still managed to bring in $58,919,838. Jerry’s telethons have given the Muscular Dystrophy Association over a billion dollars.

Speculation was rampant that this might have been Jerry’s final telethon. I’m sure that I represent the opinions of most Boomers when I say I hope not. It’s nice to see a living legend doing his thing with as much effectiveness as ever.

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