End Of An Era: A Telethon Without Jerry Lewis

Sep 2, 2011
Originally published on September 2, 2011 8:01 pm

For decades, Labor Day weekend has meant the Jerry Lewis telethon for muscular dystrophy. But this year, for the first time in 46 years, Jerry Lewis won't be on the show. The 85-year-old comedian has been dropped from the program for reasons that are still unclear.

What is clear is that this marks the end of a television institution. Every year, Lewis would drag himself through more than 21 hours of live TV — often on the verge of tears — asking viewers to give to the Muscular Dystrophy Association to help those he calls "Jerry's kids." Over the years, he helped to raise more than $2 billion for the cause.

Earlier this year, Lewis said he was retiring as host but would appear one last time this year to sing his signature song, "You'll Never Walk Alone." Then last month, the MDA abruptly announced that Lewis would not appear at all and would no longer serve as the group's national chairman. Neither Lewis nor the association would explain why.

Lewis can often be abrasive. He has offended some over the years with insensitive remarks about women, gays and people with disabilities. But he has also built a strong following for his tireless efforts to help those with muscular dystrophy. And supporters were upset to hear he would no longer be part of the show.

"As a fan of Jerry Lewis, I'm upset. Of course I am," says James Lacerenza of Stamford, Conn. Lacerenza, 24, has cerebral palsy. He has spent half his life volunteering and raising money to send children with muscular dystrophy to camp.

Lacerenza says he loves Lewis and all he has done for the cause. He is worried about what will happen if people become too upset that Lewis is no longer on the show.

"They're going to be like, 'I don't want to give,' " he says. "I think the right thing to do is to let your heart be your guide and to give, in honor of Jerry Lewis."

It's become a passionate debate online. Some on Facebook say they're so angry about the association's treatment of Lewis that they'll never give to the group again. Others plead for calm and say the controversy shouldn't stop people from helping those with serious diseases.

There are still others who are glad to see Lewis finally leave the stage.

"It's good to see him gone," says Mike Ervin, a writer and disability rights activist in Chicago. "We've had disputes for many years."

Ervin has spinal muscular atrophy and was one of "Jerry's kids" in the 1960s. But as an adult, he started Jerry's Orphans, a group opposed to what Ervin says is the telethon's portrayal of people with disabilities as victims to be pitied.

"I think that nobody really stops to think about how it makes a child feel to be held up as what they call ... ambassadors now," says Ervin. "Really, what they're saying is that this child really has very little future unless you come through."

But the MDA appears to have been more concerned about attracting new audiences in making this year's changes to the telethon. Donations have been down recently, and last year, the charity said it would shorten the show from 21.5 hours — which used to begin the day before Labor Day — to six hours and air it only on Sunday night.

Laura Lee Friedah, executive director for South Central New York MDA, says she thinks the changes will boost donations.

"It's going to be a more concentrated viewership rather than the spread-out viewership that we may have gotten on Sundays," she says. "Also, we've been able to enlist big national talent."

Singers such as Celine Dion, Lady Antebellum and Jennifer Lopez are scheduled to appear.

Still, Lacerenza thinks a big opportunity has been lost, that this year's show could have been a grand farewell to a cultural icon.

"If this was done properly, then this would have been ... my generation's [equivalent to the] Johnny Carson sendoff. And we would have had the most watched telethon, with the most pledged dollars ever," he says.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: It's almost Labor Day, which means it's almost time for the annual Jerry Lewis telethon for muscular dystrophy. But for the first time in 46 years, Jerry Lewis won't be on the show. The 85-year-old comedian has been dropped from the program for reasons still unclear. He has offended some over the years with insensitive remarks about women, gays and people with disabilities. But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, Lewis has also raised more than $2 billion for those he calls Jerry's kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JERRY LEWIS: Can you take the lights down, Lee? Because they're so bright I can't even think.

PAM FESSLER: If there are iconic TV moments any more, this is one of them, a ragged Jerry Lewis, after hours pitching for muscular dystrophy, singing his signature song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEWIS: (Singing) When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high.

FESSLER: Or a Lewis, overcome by emotion, trying to hold back the tears.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEWIS: I know the feeling of all my kids tonight. They are so lucky to have you.

FESSLER: Earlier this year, Lewis said his long run as the king of telethons was coming to an end, that he'd make his final appearance on this year's show. Then last month the Muscular Dystrophy Association abruptly announced that Lewis would not appear at all. Neither Lewis nor the MDA will explain why.

In any event, the earth shook for some when they heard that Jerry was out. As a fan of Jerry Lewis, I'm upset. Of course I am.

FESSLER: To say that James Lacerenza of Stamford, Connecticut, is a Lewis fan is an understatement. Lacerenza, who's 24 and has cerebral palsy, has spent half his life volunteering and raising money for muscular dystrophy. When I called, I asked if he could turn off the music in the background while we did our interview. Hang on one second. I'm going to have to wheel over. Ironically, it's Jerry singing.

FESSLER: It turns out he was watching a DVD of an old telethon, something he likes to do. OK. I shut Jerry off. Sorry about that.

FESSLER: Lacerenza says he loves this guy and everything he's done for the cause, including raising all that money.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEWIS: Let me hear it, do it, do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Look at the numbers.

LEWIS: Yeah, oh that's nice.

FESSLER: Lacerenza worries what will happen now, that people will be so upset that Lewis isn't on the show... They're going to be like, I don't want to give. I think the right thing to do is to let your heart be your guide and to give, in honor of Jerry Lewis.

FESSLER: And it's become a passionate debate online. Some on Facebook say they're so angry about the Muscular Dystrophy Association's treatment of Lewis, they'll never give again. Others say the controversy shouldn't stop people from helping those with a serious disease. And there are some who are just glad to see Lewis finally leave the stage.

MIKE ERVIN: It's good to see him gone. I mean, we've had disputes for many years.

FESSLER: Mike Ervin has spinal muscular atrophy. He was one of Jerry's kids back in the 1960s. But as an adult, he started Jerry's Orphans, a group opposed to what it says is the telethon's portrayal of people with disabilities as victims to be pitied.

ERVIN: I think that nobody really stops to think about how it makes a child feel to be held up as the, what they call them I guess, ambassadors now. Really what they're saying is that this child really has very little future unless you come through.

FESSLER: But the Muscular Dystrophy Association appears to have been more concerned about demographic and broadcasting changes than the disability rights community. Telethon receipts have been down recently, and last year, the charity said it would shorten the show from 21 hours to six and air it only on Sunday night.

Laura Lee Friedah is executive director for South Central New York MDA. She thinks this will boost donations.

LAURA LEE FRIEDAH: It's going to be a more concentrated viewership, rather than the spread out viewership that we may have gotten on Sundays. Also, we've been able to enlist big national talent.

FESSLER: Singers such as Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez. Still, James Lacerenza thinks a big opportunity has been lost, that this year's show could've been a grand farewell to a cultural icon. If this was done properly, then this would have been akin to my generation's Johnny Carson sendoff. And we would have had the most watched telethon, with the most pledged dollars ever.

FESSLER: But at this point, without the star of the show, that seems highly unlikely.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEWIS: (Singing) You will never walk alone.

Thank you. Good night.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, host: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.