You can get a quick summary of the event from this AV Club article, but like a lot of internet journalism it has a profoundly cynical take on it, dismissing the telethon as mawkish and sentimental and highlighting the criticisms and awkward moments over its 5 decade run.
But the Labor Day event was a cultural touchpoint for the whole country. For 24 hours over this holiday, the entire nation would stop and pay attention and work together to raise enough money to beat last year’s amazing total. Over the length of the event, heads of major corporations and beneficiary organizations would parade out to meet Jerry and hand over giant checks: “On behalf of 15,000 7-11 employees and our customers, I would like to give you this check for 1 million dollars,” one would say and Jerry would gratefully accept, visibly moved on behalf of “his” kids and shake hands or give hugs.
But what the article misses is that it was also a very local event too. Local TV stations would participate in not just showing the telethon, but hosting local versions of it, cutting in to the national show from time to time with their own hosts and phone banks and businesses and organizations raising money. Communities would band together to raise money to bring down to the local station and drop it in a big bucket or hand over a check.
Our neighborhood kids one year organized a carnival in our backyard, where people could pay some pittance for one of the teens to tell your fortune (she was dressed up like a gypsy and sitting in a large camping tent) or play some contrived carnival game. I don’t know how much we raised—probably not a lot—but it was a memorable event for all of us.
One of my bucket list desires as a kid was to stay up for the entire show one year, all 21 and a half hours and see every act. Of course, my mom would not let me sit in front of the TV for an entire revolution of the planet and so when I could sneak back in after required breaks for food, bathroom, and fresh air, I’d gnash my teeth over missing Frank Sinatra or worse, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.1
The last time we had such a national focus in which Hollywood and corporations and communities came together was for the 9/11 Telethon 15 years ago now. Of course, that was not fun or sentimental. We were all still in shock and grieving and reeling from the tragedy.
I can’t imagine anyone ever being able to pull off something like Jerry Lewis’ Telethon today. The culture has changed, the legal environment has changed. Our society is much more cynical. And we don’t do “gather around the TV” events like we did. Which is a shame, because for all its heartstring-pulling sentimentality and awkward celebrity moments, the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon was something for all Americans to rally around and a unifying touchstone and we don’t have many of those anymore.
- I don’t know if the Star Wars actors were ever on, but my recollection is that people important to me in that way were always on when I wasn’t watching. ↩
- JerryLewisTelethon: Associated Press | Copyright by owner. Used under Fair Use doctrine