Monday, September 5, 2011


Since I was a kid in the 1950’s I remember Jerry Lewis as a comedian who was mostly paired up with Dean Martin (Martin & Lewis) and also as the actor comedian who hosted fund raising events for sick kids. We didn’t exactly know what muscular dystrophy was back then but we had seen lots of kids come out of the 40’s and 50’s with the dreaded polio virus and neuromuscular diseases like Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS).

Lewis at the behest of a staff member began hosting local telethons to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Associations of America (MDA) in 1952. These benefits were held in New York and some were reported on Providence, RI TV (seen by this writer) and received widespread attention. MDA approached Jerry about hosting a national telethon and thus was born the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, since renamed the MDA Labor Day Telethon. Lewis hosted that show from 1966 to 2010 and according to MDA raised over $2.6 billion (US). Equally important, Lewis with his celebrity raised awareness about muscular disease throughout the international community.

From 1966 to last year – no matter where I was – I watched at least a snippet of that Labor Day ritual. Sometimes I even tried to emulate Jerry and pull an all-nighter but I was never as strong as Jerry and his incredible crew. I didn’t watch this year – not one second – though I will write a check.

That show with its attendant emotion and sometimes not so predictable success was the heartbeat of America over that Labor Day weekend. The world watched in that grueling, knee buckling and exhausting LIVE marathon as Jerry poured his heart out (OK, punctuated with some good acting) wondering in cliff-hanger, soap opera fashion whether he would make the goal. Jerry always got the job done.

That telethon was never boring and given the spontaneous nature of the event you never knew what Jerry was going to say or do next (“unpredictable, in a good way”). That show will now seemingly morph into a bland, shop-worn showcase for corporate America and groups of responsible citizens from firefighters to cheerleaders to walk on camera, present a check and take their bows. While these groups deserve the accolade it will be mostly staged from this point on. That’s predictable given the year round macro management now required to put on such a huge event. On the local level the true spirit of the telethon is still epitomized by kids motivated to run neighborhood lemonade stands to raise money for, “Jerry’s Kids.” We saw one flourishing the other day in Dallas.

On May 16 Lewis announced his retirement as telethon host though would remain on as MDA National Chairman and at least do a walk-on in 2011. On August 3, 2011 MDA tersely and unceremoniously announced that the now 85 year old Jerry Lewis had been removed as MDA National Chairman and would not participate in the telethon. An incredulous public including this writer gasped. The reaction was universal and for me was epitomized by David Letterman’s very talented bandleader (actor, author, comedian and composer) Paul Shaffer who opined that Lewis’ absence seemed hard to believe. Shaffer often praised for his own charity work (Epilepsy Canada) and with his own star on Canada's Walk of Fame commented further, “I think it’s insane.” And it is…

The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon to the current MDA hierarchy had become an albatross - another time capsule not unlike the one recently discovered in a wall of the old Hall Elementary School building in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Jerry Lewis Telethon had become a vestige of the past and the way we used to do things. The world has changed and however unceremonious and distasteful, MDA felt it was time to move on.

Seemingly because of all the outrage surrounding Lewis’ ouster, the beginning of the MDA Telethon included Jerry Lewis tributes delivered by the show’s new hosts though MDA and Lewis would not comment or elaborate on the remarks.

From this point on there is nothing but speculation abounding about what really happened between Jerry’s announcement on May 16 and MDA’s lynching on August 3rd. Something happened, words spoken but nobody’s talking now. If you go on the MDA site some of the pages that relate to Jerry are now inaccessible. The MDA site disrespectfully has no mention of Jerry Lewis under “Telethon History.” That by itself makes MDA look very bad. We all needed a better outcome.

So, whether it was the disability activists who thought Jerry was throwing an annual pity party; Jerry’s very personal identification with the cause; Lewis’ recent dissing of the new telethon co-hosts; shrinking revenues and TV markets/coverages; corporate big wigs who couldn’t appreciate Lewis’ slapstick, sometimes irreverent and inappropriate shoot from the hip actions and comments; Jerry’s own failing health or something we haven’t even fathomed – it doesn’t really matter. Any further speculation about the reasons still won’t bring Lewis back. It seems more prudent to look forward but still somehow find a way to show our appreciation and gratitude for the absolutely heroic life’s work that Jerry Lewis has performed. That, of course, is continuing our support for MDA and encouraging a reconciliation.

Whatever the reason, Jerry’s gone for now and MDA did OK this year. No doubt this whole issue was handled very badly, much to the discredit of MDA, even if they turn out to be good guys.

As Jerry would still dutifully say, nothing else matters, it’s all about the kids…and the adults. Thank you Jerry.


Ned Buxton

1 comment:

Mary Elizabeth said...

Very well said Ned...Thank you!!