Jerry Lewis: Muscular Dystrophy Telethon Ends, Marking the End of an Era

Pam WrightLife

Share this Post

Jerry Lewis worked tirelessly for more than 45 years bringing together celebrities, his humor and viewers for an annual Labor Day telethon to benefit children suffering from Muscular Dystrophy.

It seemed the country came together to watch celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez perform and man telephones as the tote board marked the millions of dollars coming in for "Jerry's kids." Tears flowed as an exhausted Jerry Lewis ended each telethon with his broken, but moving rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone.

That era of American television has come to an end.

“It’s not a 21-hour world anymore,” said Steve Ford, MDA executive vice president, with the announcement that the telethon will no longer be a Labor Day tradition.

It's not surprising the telethon is ending in this new era of social media, technology and the ability to fundraise in a more effective manner. When Jerry Lewis stopped hosting the show in 2010, the telethon's slow demise began. The show was reduced from 21 and a half hours in Jerry Lewis’ final year to 19 in its final year.

Fundraising will continue, but production costs associated with the telethon makes the endeavor unfeasible.

“The real heroes have always been our families, and what we need to do is make sure that every dollar we raise is spent working for our families,” he said.

In 2008, the telethon marked its greatest success, raising $65 million for Jerry's kids. And over the years, Jerry Lewis helped to raise more than $2 billion for MDA.

Jerry Lewis' association with MDA goes back to its inception in 1950. Lewis and his comic partner Dean Martin mentioned the charity not the NBC show, and the two hosted a telethon in 1956. Jerry Lewis began hosting the telethon regularly beginning in 1966.

Not everyone thought that Jerry Lewis was doing good. Some felt he made people with the disease objects of pity by Lewis in order to raise money.

With once in a lifetime performances from celebrities like John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles appearing on the telethon, the MDA has been discussing with Jerry Lewis ways to release some of the archived material.

Do you remember watching the Jerry Lewis Telethon?

Pam Wright