Monday, September 06, 2021

I miss Jerry

It began locally in New York in 1966.  THE JERRY LEWIS LABOR DAY TELETHON.  They raised over a million that first year, which is phenomenal.   Eventually it went national and shifted to Las Vegas.  Jerry called upon his show business friends to perform and the telethon really became a “thing.”  Frank Sinatra got Dean Martin to go on one year and reunite with Jerry.  Norm Crosby seemed to appear every hour. 

It was the great annual cheese event — primarily because Jerry became so supercilious and maudlin.  The best part was his treacly introductions, his oozing faux sincerity. Every performer was an “incredible human being and true humanitarian.”  Every artist was “gifted,” “irreplaceable,” “a genius,” “a giant,” “a legend.”  Norm Crosby, a genius? 

Sadly, the telethon eventually ended (as did Jerry some years later).  And I really miss it.  For kitsch there was nothing like it.  Jerry singing “Rock a Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” towards the end of each show as if that were a big fucking deal.   And there was sidekick, Ed McMahon to chortle uproariously at everything Jerry did.  The amazing genius performers at 7 AM on Labor Day were usually dog acts from Circus Circus.   The big guns came later in the afternoon.  I don’t think Frank Sinatra was ever up before noon (unless he heard the woman’s husband coming home unexpectedly).

But the thing I miss most is THE JERRY LEWIS TELETHON was a shared national event.  And we have so few of those left.  

Labor Day is always bittersweet.  It marks the end of summer but the return of pumpkin-spiced Starbucks latte. 

Happy Labor Day.  Jerry, wherever you are, don’t go changin’.  Lunch sometime? Awesome.  I’ll have my people call your people, unless you don’t have people, in which I’d be happy to loan you some of mine.

Happy Labor Day, everybody.

29 comments :

Daniel said...

I'm a Gen-Xer, so for me the Jerry Lewis telethon was a source of anxiety since it meant that the next day, summer vacation was over and school was to begin. For that reason, I hated it.

Jeff Boice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

Where else could you tune in and see Tony Orlando croaking out Neil Diamond's America and Ed McMahon telling him after, "That was a closer! That was a closing number!" Great. I can't think of Jerry without recalling this amazing article.
https://observer.com/2001/06/the-professors-still-nutty/

Sue T. said...

My favorite ad lib from the telethon was some guy explaining that Jerry would return very shortly but was currently backstage putting on a new coat of hair oil.

tavm said...

I'm now thinking of that YouTube clip of other sidekick Casey Kasem using his Shaggy voice to tell his audience (presumable the kiddies at home) to send in even more money to fight Muscular Dystrophy!

Jeff Boice said...

Plus on Monday afternoon Jerry would start rambling. One year I was watching with a friend and Lewis went into a long soliloquy that included "God, Yahweh, or whoever the hell it is who's up there". My friend laughed, shook her head and said "That man has problems".

Tom Quigley said...

Based on what I know about the guy, I don't miss him at all, but I do miss the comfort one could settle into if they turned on the telethon on a Labor Day, even if it was only for background noise. To see someone from 7-Eleven or the International Brotherhood of Firefighters delivering a check every half hour or so and hear Ed McMahon yell "Hiyo!" every time the total got bumped up made you feel that at least someone was doing something constructive for the holiday besides making a run to Home Depot or shopping for a $39 mattress that they saw advertised. It was one of the last vestiges of What mid-20th century America was all about and it's too bad we don't have more stuff like it to build memories on.

James Van Hise said...

Didn't Jerry finally get forced out of hosting the telethon because many actual victims of MS felt that Jerry was portraying them as objects of pity instead of human beings? And after all of those decades of the telethon, has anything of value been done to fight the ravages of MS with all of that money that was raised?

Bob Waldman said...

Hi Ken,
For everyone who misses Jerry and the telethon, here's a behind the scenes look that aired on A Current Affair:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCxxW9qEGSM

Happy Labor Day!

John in NW Ohio said...

I was a teenager when we actually watched the telethon as a family, and I remember wondering why he would sometimes say dismissive and downright nasty things to his "guests", as if he had some kind of license to be a dick.

JoeyH said...

After the death of TV variety shows, the MDA telethon was about the only place you could watch these classic acts. For my Labor Day BBQ I always enjoyed adding some cheese.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Don't ask me why but I remember the president of Wetson's Hamburgers presenting Jerry with a big golf check representing money they had guilted from their customers. Like the telethon, Wetson's is out of business, undersold by the national chains, I suppose.

Cheryl Marks said...

1966, really? Somehow I remember being younger and going around the neighborhood collecting donations for "Jerry's Kids."

I guess one of the more interesting aspects is that my younger brother and I knew the folks at every door we knocked in the neighborhood and they knew us. Maybe more importantly, they trusted us to turn in the donations at the local TV station broadcasting the telethon.

Also, as I recall it wasn't quite as "treacly" in the early years, but the really BIG event was when Dean Martin made an appearance after being estranged from his old partner for a number of years.

Wayne said...

My little brother suffered from muscular dystrophy for years, and say what you want about Jerry Lewis and that telethon, there was a time when he was a genuine hero to those kids, both for the money he raised and for the awareness he brought to muscular dystrophy, which is a truly awful thing to have.

The telethon ended because the powers that be decided Jerry was too old and dumped him, though for public appearance sake, he was allowed to step down voluntarily. They failed to realize, though, the degree to which Jerry was the glue that held the telethon together, and it fell apart without him, deflating first to six hours, and later to two hours before it ended altogether.

The telethon was revived last year as a two-hour "social media" event hosted by Kevin Hart.

DBenson said...

Memories:
-- Phyllis Diller before an audience too burnt out to laugh. She soldiered on, toned down as if she didn't want to wake them up, and said to somebody seated nearby "Did you ever bomb like this?"
-- The Jackson Five doing a big, high-energy number as Jerry wandered through, as if this wasn't on air and he was wondering who they were.
-- Local stations tying in with live remotes, where people would line up to drop bills or change into a thing on camera and talk to the local sports or weather guy.
-- A live amateur talent show marathon at a neighborhood theater, with baton twirlers, garage bands, dance school groups moving to records, vocalists, etc. I was in a production of "Cabaret" and our director had us all show up to attempt the title number in street clothes, on a movie theater stage that turned out to be maybe six feet deep.

What I miss more are the local public television auctions, at least until all the items were gourmet baskets and wine country weekends.

On all fronts, season transitions aren't what they used to be. Even pre-pandemic, autumn-themed decor and Halloween stuff begin seeping into stores right after the 4th of July, school openings are staggered with some opening in August, while Special Fall Preview TV Guides and primetime specials promoting the new Saturday morning shows are long gone. And here we're looking at 90°+ weather for a while yet.

Mike Bloodworth said...

We may not have Jerry any more, but we still have the CHABAD Telethon. I watched about thirty seconds of that last night.

A blessed Rosh Hashanah to everyone.

M.B.

Jeff Maxwell said...

Okay, I loved Jerry Lewis. I got hooked on his character “That Kid” from the first time I saw him in a movie. He was mischievous, rebellious, silly, ridiculous, naive, sincere, needy, loving, funny and loyal to his friends. Closest thing to a human puppy you could get.

He brought a lot of that with him in the early days of the telethon. As an adult, because of my MASH ties, I once answered phones on the local television segment. I was in hog heaven. There were some kids at the station who were afflicted by the lousy disease. It broke my heart. I never looked at the show the same way again.

I knew folks extremely close to Jerry and the telethon’s production. He did get strange in later years, but, to my knowledge, he was very sincere about the purpose of the event. It was not all about him getting a paycheck.

The show really did unite us all for a day. Love the show or not, it allowed us all to feel good about doing something collectively to help somebody. Thanks Jerry. Yeah, I miss the telethon, too.

Philly Cinephile said...

I loved the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon and remember it fondly, without irony or apology. Growing up, it seemed like the most exciting and glamorous show because it came from LAS VEGAS! and represented the epitome of "showbiz", as opposed to "show business" or the "entertainment industry". We always had a family barbecue on Labor Day Sunday, and as much as I enjoyed it, I couldn't wait for it to be over so I could "stay up with Jerry and watch the stars come out." I loved seeing Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Don Rickles, and so many others, and was glued to the set when Frank brought out Dean Martin. I also have vivid memories of Joey Heatherton, wearing a bowler while belting out a number and doing high kicks in a fringe skirt. And then there were the cutaways to the happenings at WPVI-TV in Philadelphia, with Captain Noah and other local celebrities holding court at the "fish bowl" and collecting donations.

ventucky said...

In the mid 80's I was in my mid 20's. Had a work friend 15 years older than he. He was incredulous that I had never watched the telethon. He simply could not believe anyone had never seen it. Up until the end I never had seen one minute of it, and it was NEVER a subject of conversation amongst friends my age. Technically my older friend and I are both Baby Boomers, but this simply illustrates those lables really mean nothing.

I'm Outraged! said...

1 million dollars plus perks for a weekend of 'doing it for the kids', it was a nice gravy train for Jerry.

joyce@qnez.com said...

I went to the Telethon one year in the 80s as the plus one of a caregiver of an MD boy. Jerry got Caesar's to comp our rooms. All of us got to ride an elevator with Charo who told a hilarious story about her son's pet rat and how it came to "aspire". It was unforgettable.

I actually remember the telethon Jerry hosted in 1956, I think on the weekend before July 4th. I hadn't started school yet, and it seemed like a huge deal to me. Years later, when the actual Telethon ran every Labor Day, I didn't realize Jerry hadn't been doing those all along.

Darwin's Ghost said...

Ken, did you know or know of sitcom writer Irma Kalish?

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/irma-kalish-trailblazing-sitcom-writer-producer-dies-1235009021/

Brian said...

Truly a time that seems to have passed. Thanks the reminder, Ken.

Leighton said...

I never watched it, because it was a maudlin freak show.

CarolMR said...

I watched a What's My Line episode the other day on YouTube where Jerry was the Mystery Guest. When he wasn't making funny faces, Jerry was quite a handsome man.

Brian Phillips said...

This should be read knowing that Ed McMahon did recorded Alpo Dog Food ads during the Tonight Show.

I recall the "drama" around the board that tallied the donations. The tympani roll began and Jerry Lewis would ask the board to be changed...and one of the numbers stuck. Ed McMahon ran over to the board and manually pulled it.

Lewis dropped to his knees in mock-worship and said, "I will never eat anything but Alpo for the rest of my life!"

Thank you Mike Bloodworth for reminding me about the Chabad Telethon. I remember switching to this briefly years ago. My wife looked at it and asked me in all seriousness, "Is this a real show?"

James Van Hise is also correct. A friend of mine, in a wheelchair due to polio, echoed these sentiments and I had read articles that also reflected this.


Here is an old blog entry of mine about other telethons:
https://ultrasonicremote.blogspot.com/2011/08/yeah-buddy.html


Matt said...

I always hated it because in Oklahoma it was carried by The NBC affiliate and would preempt excellent tennis at the US Open.

D. McEwan said...

I don't get it. I NEVER watched even one second of the telethons. Ever! Why would I voluntarily watch Jerry Lewis?

When I found eventually that there were people I knew who routinely annually watched at least some of the telethon, I was flummoxed. Why? For me the only annual tradition it was part of was my annual tradition of avoiding every bit of it.

WHY?

Ficta said...

Late reply here, but a couple of commenters wondered if any progress had actually been made on treating Muscular Dystrophy. I'm not sure if any telethon money was involved (I would suspect there was some, somewhere along the way) but the answer is a resounding yes. We're not there yet, but gene therapy is very close to a cure. There are already "one shot" cures for some childhood diseases similar to MDA. The technology is similar to that used to make those amazing COVID-19 MRNA vaccines (note: the MRNA vaccines are NOT gene therapy, despite what some internet kooks might say). It's an age of Wonders. Don't lose sight of that.