Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon

Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon

The "Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon" is hosted by Jerry Lewis to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. It has been held annually since 1966. As of 2007, the telethon had raised $1.46 billion since its inception. ["Jerry Lewis' telethon hits new record ",, AP, September 3, 2007, accessed September 4, 2007 ]

It is held on Labor Day weekend, starting on the Sunday evening preceding Labor Day and continuing until late Monday afternoon, syndicated to approximately 190 television stations throughout the United States. In recent years, the telethon generally runs live for 21 hours, from 9PM ET to 6PM ET, though actual start and end times may vary by station. MDA calls its network of participating stations the "Love Network". The Telethon has originated from Las Vegas for 23 of the 40 years it has aired.


Jerry Lewis began hosting telethons to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Associations of America in 1952 after a plea from a staff member who worked on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis' editions of the "Colgate Comedy Hour". The shows first originated from a variety of locations in New York City in 1954, as local telethons seen exclusively on WABD-TV Channel 5 (later WNEW-TV, now WNYW). After Lewis conducted many 4 hour shows in the NY area to benefit the organization, the idea of a big Telethon came about. The organization (MDAA) approached Lewis to host the big event and he agreed. Organizers of the telethon chose Labor Day weekend as it was the only time available to hold the event. Many expected that the Labor Day broadcast would fail with many people out of town or away from their TVs on Labor Day weekend. Even New York City officials were skeptical that it would succeed, which made them reluctant to issue them a fund-raising permit. Nevertheless, in 1966, the first Labor Day telethon—a 19-hour affair—was so successful that Lewis had to paint a "1" on the 6-digit tote board when the final tote reached $1,002,114. The show repeated its success in 1967 raising $1,126,846.

In 1968, after word of mouth of the success and stars appearing on the show, the "Love Network" was created when four other stations picked up the telethon -- WHEC-TV in Rochester, WGR in Buffalo, WTEV in Providence and WKBG in Boston. However, they met some opposition from the "Theater Authority", an organization that represented theatrical-related labor unions, in which their permission is required before the representing talent can perform without charge. That year, permission was granted for talent to appear on the small telethon "network". The addition of the other stations helped raise the total to $1,401,876.

While they originally intended for the entire telethon to be seen, with the obligatory local pauses for station identification, WHEC chose to break in a few minutes every hour to show local volunteers in Rochester taking calls, and, as a result, WHEC had higher proceeds than the other "Love Network" stations. This is how the local cutaway was born. From here on, every Telethon had cutaways and other Telethon events used this formula as well.

By 1970, the telethon was seen nationwide on 64 stations; that year's edition was also the first coast-to-coast telethon, when it added Los Angeles to its station roster. It was also the year the Theater Authority lifted its ban on nationwide telethons. Proceeds this year came to $5,093,385. The show continued to gain popularity and huge stars throughout the next 2 years.

Then, in 1973, with 150 "Love Network" stations in tow, the telethon moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where it originated at the Sahara Hotel. It was also the year the telethon broke the $10 million mark, with its final tote being $12,395,973. However, the tote board, which was operated on a solari board, only had seven digits (to just under $10 million), so Jerry repeated his 1966 stunt of painting the "1" on the left after Ed came yelling off stage saying "I have a brush, and I have some paint...". The following year, an additional solari number flipper was added to the current seven digits, which would allow for displaying to just under $100 million.

In 1976, the "Love Network" grew to 213 stations; it was also the year of the reunion of Jerry and his former partner, Dean Martin, which was arranged by a frequent telethon guest, Frank Sinatra.

Jerry Lewis anchored the entire broadcast—which would eventually expand to 21 1/2 hours—from its inception until 1983, when he rested for a few hours offstage after undergoing bypass surgery the year before. Lewis still continued to host at least 16 hours of his telethon until 1999 when he would appear for the first five hours and the last five hours of the telecast, allowing others to co-host. That year Lewis had suffered medical issues as well. The trend of taking a break in the evening was started in 1985 by Ed McMahon, Lewis' long-time co-host, who is a few years older than Jerry. Co-hosts have included talk show host Larry King, comedians Norm Crosby, Elayne Boosler, Bob Zany, TV personalities Chad Everett, David Hartman, Casey Kasem, Jann Carl, Leeza Gibbons, John Tesh, veteran singers Tony Orlando, Julius LaRosa (who began co-hosting for Jerry in remote locations since 1975), Sammy Davis Jr., and many others.

During the telethon's Las Vegas years in the 1970s and 1980s, the show originated at the Sahara until 1982 when it moved to a bigger space at Caesars Palace. The show continued there until 1989 when it originated from the Cashman Center in Las Vegas - the first and only time it was transmitted from a non-hotel in Las Vegas.

In 1990, the telethon originated from the Aquarius Theater in Los Angeles, then returned to Las Vegas and the Sahara Hotel until 1995 when it moved again to Southern California, to the CBS studios for 9 years and then in 2005 to Beverly Hills.

In 1998, MDA's successful all star landmark show became the first to be broadcast on the Internet by RealNetworks on the association's [ website] . After the telethon, the site features a special highlights reel of the telethon for that year.

The telethon returned to Las Vegas in 2006 at the "South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa" (which was the "South Coast" its first year there), and has remained there through the 2008 telethon.

tation coverage and pre-emptions

In recent years, more "Love Network" stations over the years have opted not to show the entire telethon, opting to join the show in progress after the 11PM/10PM local news, or even on Labor Day morning, after the network morning shows, while some break from the coverage during the afternoon to show sports, such as CBS' coverage of the U.S. Open.

One such station is Chicago's WGN-TV, which, since the 1970s, pre-empted the afternoon segment of the telethon for Chicago Cubs or Chicago White Sox baseball. In another case, some use a sister station affiliated with either The CW, MyNetworkTV or an independent to show the telethon start, and/or air the station's network programming while the telethon station continues to air the telethon; this is the case with CBS affiliate WDJT in Milwaukee and its independent sister station WMLW-CA, which in 2007 aired the first four hours of the telethon during CBS prime time, then aired U.S. Open coverage on Labor Day to allow WDJT to carry the telethon. In Pittsburgh, WPXI carried the telethon, while sending NBC's coverage of the Deutsche Bank Championship golf tournament to independent station WBGN-LP [cite web | url= | accessdate=2007-09-04 | title=WPXI gears up for telethon; WTAE debuts new set | publisher=Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | first=Rob | last=Owen | date=August 31, 2007 ] .

Theme songs

* Since the show's inception, its theme has been "Smile", a song from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film, "Modern Times".

* The telethon's toteboard theme song is an instrumental version of Burt Bacharach's "What The World Needs Now Is Love" (1965). It was used from 1970 through 1989 in different arrangements. At the show's 25th Anniversary in 1990, it wasn't used, but returned for the 1991 edition back in Las Vegas. In 1992, the song was replaced by various orchestral fanfares to give the show a fresh effect, but it returned in 1996 at Lewis' request. It remained the tote theme since then, though the 2008 edition used the song only for the final tote while a generic fanfare marked the others.

*The song Jerry Lewis perennially sings to conclude the event, "You'll Never Walk Alone", was originally written for the 1945 Broadway musical play, "Carousel" by Rodgers and Hammerstein. According to Lewis' account at the end of the 2007 telethon, the song was suggested to him in 1964 by a disabled child, walking with a cane. It was suggested to Jerry as a song that would specifically represent physically disabled children.


Through the 1980s, there were also Canadian "Love Network" affiliates, whose telethon presentations there benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Canada, an organization unrelated to the American MDA, but used Jerry's US telethon for fund raising. The telethon also helped launch a new station -- in Winnipeg, Manitoba, CKND-TV's first program on August 31, 1975 was Jerry's telethon. [cite web | url= | accessdate=2007-09-02 | title=Television Station History:CKND | publisher=Canadian Communications Foundation | first=Bill | last=Dulmage |date=January 2007]

Today, no Canadian station airs the telethon, though it is available on cable and satellite from WGN, as well as from border US stations. As of 2007, Muscular Dystrophy Canada continued to operate pledge call centers during the telethon to collect Canadian donations. [cite web | url= | publisher=Muscular Dystrophy Canada | date=13 August 2007 | accessdate=2007-09-02 | title=42nd Annual Jerry Lewis Labour Day Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy Canada (MDC) ] The corporate donation segments still occasionally mention their Canadian donors, and WGN's telethon includes a number for Canadians to call to make a pledge, 1-800-567-CURE, which connects to the pledge center in Toronto. [cite web | url= | publisher=Muscular Dystrophy Canada | date=13 August 2007 | accessdate=2007-09-02 | title=42nd Annual Jerry Lewis Labour Day Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy Canada (MDC) ] Most border stations would also show either the local pledge number for the Canadian portion of their viewing area, or the national Canadian number.

The final Canadian-based local broadcasts of the telethon aired from Ottawa in 2001. After this, MDC officials canceled the local broadcasts claiming cost savings. The Ottawa broadcasts were first hosted by CFRA radio's Ken Grant, who expressed concern that there would be fewer donations due to the loss of local broadcast features. Ottawa's telethon broadcasts were conducted for 31 years, most of which originated from the Skyline Hotel (later known as the Citadel Inn). [cite news | title=Ottawa dropped from Lewis telethon: End of 31-year Labor Day tradition marks change in format, 'better use of funds' | publisher=Ottawa Citizen | date=23 August 2002 | page=F1 ]

Hurricanes Frances, Katrina and Gustav

Telethon tote board pledges for 2004 were down nearly 2%, to $59,398,915 (from $60,505,234 in 2003). Hurricane Frances had struck through most of the Florida peninsula late on September 5th, during the telethon, significantly reducing pledges from the southeast United States. As many Florida stations devoted their air-time to coverage of Hurricane Frances, most Love Network stations in Florida cancelled the local segments of the telethon and either showed only parts of the telethon, moved the telethon to a digital subchannel, or not show the telethon at all. On a Saturday afternoon in early December 2004, some Florida Love Network stations showed a special three-hour telethon, as a way to recoup some of the lost pledges. Fact|date=September 2007

Telethon pledges were down another 7.5%, to $54,921,586 in 2005 due to significant Hurricane Katrina disaster relief efforts in New Orleans and throughout the region. That year, Jerry and his guests urged telethon viewers to also give donations to The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross. The MDA itself donated $1 million to The Salvation Army for hurricane relief efforts.

Prior to the hurricane-effected results of 2004 and 2005, the only other time the telethon raised less than the previous year was in 1982 ($28,400,000), during the recession of the early 1980s.Fact|date=September 2007 One source said, however, that it was due to Jerry sitting out most of the telethon, due to his heart attack earlier. ["The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste", by Jane and Michael Stern (New York, Harpercollins, 1990)] However the next year - 1983, the Telethon succeeded again in raising more money than its previous year and by 1984 was back to its record breaking pace.

In 2006, the final tote board tally was $61,013,855 as 5 major regional stations knocked out during previous telecast came back online. It was the first time since 2003 that the telethon raised more money than the previous year.

In 2007, the telethon again raised more than any previous year, closing the show with tote board pledges totaling $63,759,478.

On Labor Day in 2008 (September 1, 2008), Hurricane Gustav struck the coast of Louisiana. Some Love Network affiliates in the affected area have cancelled the telethon for safety and informational purposes; at least one Love Network station, KLFY-TV in Lafayette, Louisiana, has plans for a brief make-up telethon at a later date. [ [ KLFY: "KLFY MDA Telethon Postponed", 8/29/2008] ] Meanwhile, in New Orleans, the local telethon segments on WNOL-TV was also postponed, with WGNO, the local producer (as well as WNOL's co-owner) urging those wanting to give to do so through "the national telethon"; future plans to make up pledges locally are unknown. [ [ WGNO: "Jerry Lewis Local Telethon Postponned (sic) Due to Gustav", 8/29/2008] ] Nationally, Jerry Lewis mentioned Hurricane Gustav and wished those in the affected area, especially his "kids", luck. Neither he nor his guests made pleas for donations to The Salvation Army, contrary to a press release that said he would, [ [ KPRC: "Jerry Lewis Calls For Gustav Help", 8/31/2008] ] although guest host Tom Bergeron did make a plea for donations to the Salvation Army during his hosting stint on the morning of September 1, as Gustav made landfall. However, with less than 10 minutes remaining in the 2008 telethon, the tote board update reflected an increase from the 2007 total, racking up $65,031,393 in donations, exceeding 2007's tote. Lewis had spoken about his concern at not making his goal of "one dollar more" due to economic conditions and Hurricane Gustav. When the tote board updated to show they'd gotten over 2007's total, he screamed three times, "I got it!"

Tote board

* The telethon's toteboards varied from year to year; in the 1970s it was operated on a Solari-board, consisting of seven (later eight) number flippers using a white background and black numbers. Instead of using blank numbers, all flippers began with zeros. This tote board was discontinued after 1989 and replaced with a new tote board, first operated with the "eggcrate" display common on game shows, then later to an LCD-type "vane" display. By 2003, the tote board was changed to a screen display.

* "Elgin Watches" was the sponsor of the telethon's toteboard as the "Official Timekeeper of the Telethon" in the late-1960s and early-1970s, at least during the telethon's New York years. [ [ "Radical Software", Vol. 2 Issue 2 (1973)] ] From the mid-1970s to the early-1980s, "Helbros" was the toteboard sponsor. Since the early-1980s, the tote board had no dedicated sponsor, though some local stations continue to have a sponsor for their local tote boards.

Tote board results

The final totes listed here do not take into account pledges called in after the final tote was announced live -- many stations would continue collecting pledges during their telecasts, with some stations tape-delaying the telethon, due to scheduling, time zone issues, or other programming commitments.


The MDA and Jerry Lewis have been criticized by disability rights activists for their tendency to paint disabled people as, these advocates say, "pitiable victims who want and need nothing more than a big charity to take care of or cure them." [ [ "TheKidsAreAllRight" documentary website] about a renegade Jerry's Kid named Mike Ervin] Critics argue that focusing the public's attention on medical cures to "normalize" disabled people fails to address issues like providing accessible buildings, transportation, employment opportunities and other civil rights for the disabled. [ [ "The Nutty Profess-ion" article] from "Rabble News"]


*Game show announcer Johnny Olson was the telethon's announcer for the first five years, 1966 to 1970.

* 7 Up was the telethon's first corporate sponsor, in which they would raise money through special promotions and issue checks in installments to Jerry during the course of the telethon. 7 Up is also the longest corporate sponsor, supporting the telethon since 1974. Prior to that year, sponsorship was generally limited to trade unions and civic organisations -- the most durable being the International Association of Fire Fighters, who supported the MDA since 1954, and appeared on the telethon since 1966.

*Another notable sponsor was 7-Eleven, who was a sponsor from the mid-1970s to the early-2000s. During the late-1970s and early-1980s, Jerry Lewis also appeared in commercials for 7-Eleven, promoting its stores and products.

* In 1980, a strike by AFTRA and SAG prevented many guest stars from performing. Instead, they simply walked onstage, shook hands with Lewis, handed him a personal check, and encouraged viewers to make a donation.

* Jerry Lewis was also the host of the first edition of the French "Téléthon" in 1987, which benefits the muscular dystrophy charity in France, "L'Association française contre les myopathies". Jerry also co-hosted the 1991 edition. The French MD telethon is generally televised on France 2 on the first weekend in December, with the 2007 edition taking in €96,228,136 (US$141,089,693) in pledges, down from its 2006 total of €101,472,581 (US$136,389,286). "(The value in US dollars against Euros are as of the telethon's broadcast for that particular year.)"

* Today, of the charter affiliates of the "Love Network", WHEC-TV and the present-day WGRZ and WLNE-TV still carry the telethon.
** What is now WLVI-TV (the former WKBG) has since dropped the event, which has since moved to WCVB-TV.
** Today's WNYW (the former WNEW) dropped the telethon after 1986, which moved to WWOR-TV in 1987. Ironically, both WNYW and WWOR are now under the common ownership of the Fox Television Stations Group.


External links

* [ Telethon website at]
** [ List of celebrities that appeared on the telethon (through 2007)]
* [ Muscular Dystrophy Association's website]
* [ The Telethon Years "(unofficial site)"]
* [ Photo Memories of WJKS (includes some local telethon pictures)]
* [ French Téléthon website]

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