The MDA Labor Day telethon, hosted by multi-talented Jerry Lewis, was a holiday staple of network TV for over 40 years. The Lewis-headed televised fundraiser ran from 1966 to 2010, and raised over $2 billion for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Muscular dystrophy is a neuromuscular disease in which muscles slowly deteriorate until they cease to function.
Framed in part as a variety show, the telethon featured a steady stream of performers, skits, and musical numbers. Each performance was offered for the sake of urging people to donate generously to the MDA while phone numbers and fundraising updates from different parts of the country swam across the bottom of the screen.
Do you remember these hallmarks about the telethon?
Jerry Lewis was—and still is—the face most associated with the MDA telethon. Lewis, who began his career as a comedian working with fellow comedian and singer Dean Martin, didn’t stop at comedy. Lewis was an accomplished director, writer, and singer, and many of his films are considered comedy classics, the original The Nutty Professor among them. In fact, directors such as Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg have gone on record to say that they consider Lewis a master of cinema.
Nowadays, the internet makes online financial transactions easy; however, in the heyday of the MDA, telephones and mailers were the dominant paradigm. Who can forget the tiers of phone tables ringing off the hook? The phones were manned by volunteers, some of them famous entertainers, who would record donation pledges, then pass them to runners who would send the donation forms to the post office to mail as soon as possible in order to avoid donors getting cold feet.
Children with muscular dystrophy were often referred to as Jerry’s Kids. The moniker started almost as soon as the televised fundraiser itself, and became a powerful branding element for the telethon, which included impassioned narratives about children struggling with the illness. Currently, the MDA reports that it runs over 200 clinics dedicated to muscular dystrophy, as well as several clinics dedicated to tackling ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The MDA also runs summer camps and aftercare programs for children with muscular dystrophy.
Lewis made it a point to recruit as much Hollywood talent as possible. Ed McMahon was a longtime co-host of the show, and music legend Frank Sinatra co-hosted several times. The entertainment would occur consistently for the 21 and a half hours the telethon would run, always ending at 6:30 ET on Labor Day Monday (although not all networks televised the entire show). The lineups included skits and musical numbers by the likes of legendary entertainers Sammy Davis Jr. and Diana Ross.
There were also cutaways to local telethon charity efforts that focused on local celebrities and volunteers in the coverage areas. According to Omaha actor Christopher Palmer, Dr. San Guinary was the role of a lifetime for KMTV’s John Jones, who reveled in motivating Omaha to participate in fundraising to fight muscular dystrophy. Jones was a founder in building the Omaha MDA from its grassroots through the telethon broadcasts, and shared his passion for community service with his fans. He paid special attention to attracting involvement from children with their families. These collections would culminate at Dr. San Guinary’s telethon Fishbowl, which averaged $40,000 per year from 1971-1981. Jones was active with MDA fundraising from 1971-1987 and appeared on the telethon 17 times. Palmer is the current Dr. San Guinary and is completing a biography titled The Dr. San Guinary Scrapbook—The Life and Times of John Andrew Phillip Fleming Jones.
One of the telethon’s defining moments was Lewis’s reunion with his comedy partner Dean Martin. The pair began their comedy career almost by accident due to an employment opportunity that hinged on them performing on stage as a pair. The duo went on to perform thousands of times together, from Atlantic City to Vegas, and they were soon considered the most famous comedy duo in show business. However, their relationship cooled; after 10 years of success, the pair split up. The two reunited during the 1976 telethon, officiated by Frank Sinatra. They hadn’t spoken personally for 20 years.
Jerry Lewis ended each telethon with the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which he once claimed was chosen by one of the first Jerry’s Kids (although that origin story has been disputed). The song was from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Lewis’s last telethon was in 2010.
This article was printed in the 60+ section of the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.