How Jerry Lewis Defined the Charity Telethon to Millions

Jerry Lewis, the comedic icon who died Sunday, was for decades perhaps the biggest face of an individual organization, through his help with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He ultimately helped raise billions for muscular dystrophy research.

Jerry Lewis was perhaps one of the most famous comedians of the past century, someone who dazzled in a wide variety of performances, especially those with comedic partner Dean Martin.

Lewis, who died Sunday at age 91, was well-regarded on the stage and screen. But the biggest performance of his career is one that he spent more than half a century focused on—his telethon efforts with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, along with secondary groups such as the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC).

According to the MDA, Lewis helped the organization raise $2.5 billion for the cause of finding a cure for muscular dystrophy.

From the Birth of Television …

While long associated with Labor Day, the roots of the telethon date to 1950, when MDA was looking for celebrities to support its cause. Martin and Lewis, who were a famous radio-based comic duo at the time, agreed to assist with the endeavor, first with on-air appeals before soon branching out to television.

The first holiday-related MDA event occurred on Thanksgiving Eve 1953, when Lewis and Martin honored NALC members for their hard work with a two-hour special aired on ABC television and radio outlets. (NALC made MDA its official charity in 1952.)

In a 1954 Hedda Hopper column, the famed Hollywood scribe noted that Martin and Lewis did not use a telethon format for this early performance, instead recommending that people put money into an envelope and hand it to a letter carrier. That call led to $3.9 million in donations that year alone.

Of course, this was only the start. Lewis, who eventually split with Martin, continued to help with a variety of events for MDA, mostly held on Thanksgiving Day, until finally hitting on the famous 21.5-hour Labor Day Telethon format in 1966. The event proved immensely popular, and the format stayed active in one form or another for nearly 50 years, only ending in 2014.

The telethons have heightened public awareness, not only for MDA victims, but other disabilities as well.

Lewis was active with the organization for most of that time, helping to entertain the public and make appeals in support of those afflicted with the disease until he retired in 2010 at age 84.

Some of the telethon’s moments, particularly a 1976 reunion with Dean Martin, became a part of television history.

Not Without Its Critics

But the annual event, while hugely popular, was not without controversy. In the early 1990s, critics of the telethon approach started to surface—particularly a group of people with disabilities, some who appeared on the telethon decades prior.

The concern stemmed from Lewis’ use of outdated language and the approach to the telethons, which tended to take pity on those receiving charity. (Organizers defended the approach, arguing that it was driven by compassion, not pity.) By 2001, according to The Washington Post, Lewis was forced to publicly apologize.

“He Stood Head and Shoulders Above Any Other Celebrity”

While the criticism affected the telethon, it ultimately did not take away from Lewis’ decades of work on the issue—which, according to MDA spokesman Bob Mackle, moved people with disabilities out of the shadows.

“The telethons have heightened public awareness, not only for MDA victims, but other disabilities as well,” Mackle once said, according to The Associated Press. “Before the telethons, people with disabilities weren’t seen on television. Children were not allowed in schools, disabled persons were shunned. The telethons changed that by humanizing the victims.”

MDA has changed its approach in recent years, but the association was among the first to speak up upon Lewis’ death Sunday.

“What Jerry did for our cause is immeasurable—he stood head and shoulders above any other celebrity associated with a specific cause to make sure the world knew about muscular dystrophy and the children and adults who live with it,” said R. Rodney Howell, M.D., the current board chair, in a statement.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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