Today is Labor Day, which is traditionally the last day of summer and a time for one last barbecue or trip to the beach with family and friends.
Labor Day used to be remembered for another annual tradition – the Jerry Lewis Telethon.
For all the young people who don’t know what I’m talking about, the Jerry Lewis Telethon was an annual fundraiser for muscular dystrophy. Every year as a kid, I’d try to “stay up late with Jerry and see the stars come out” but inevitably would be asleep by 10:00.
It was a classic star-studded television extravaganza the likes of which you don’t see anymore. Every year, you’d see Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, Don Rickles, Wayne Newton, and other big stars perform to raise money for “Jerry’s Kids.” In 1976, there was a classic television moment when Frank Sinatra surprised Jerry by bringing out Dean Martin, ending a long-running feud between the two stars.
The telethon was also probably the only show featuring the talents of “B-List entertainment” and minor celebrities of yesterday preform. Where else on TV could you see Charo dance the “cuchi cuchi” or the likes of Norm Crosby tell bad jokes?
What also made the telethon magical were Jerry’s hijinks. It was comedy gold to see him blackout his front teeth and ham around with the Tall Cedars of Lebanon choir, kid around with the firefighters’ union rep presenting a big check, or watch him needle his longtime sidekick Ed McMahon.
You also saw many technical difficulties and problems with the tote board, which made it even more fun to watch. And there was never a dry eye in the house at the end of the telethon when, having surpassed his goal of raising $1 more than the previous year, Jerry tried to get through “Walk On”.
Bringing it back to the free market – the organization that Jerry’s telethon supported – the Muscular Dystrophy Association – is an example of the power of private charities to change the world.
Since the organization was founded in 1950, it has committed more than $1 billion in funding – all raised through private donations – to neuromuscular research. The MDA says this amount represents the large source of funding for such research outside the government. They also fund and operate Care Centers for patients with ALS or muscular dystrophy, offer education to patients and families, and run summer camps for children and teens battling neuromuscular diseases.
Jerry made his last appearance hosting the telethon in 2010, and he passed away last year. The telethon itself ended in 2014, a victim to changing times and changing television habits. Nowadays, people would rather just send a text message to donate $5 or $10 to a cause rather than watch a star-studded fundraiser.
Somehow it seems like there’s a big now every Labor Day weekend without Jerry Lewis and his kids on our television screens.
Tim Anaya is communications director for the Pacific Research Institute.