"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark"

My husband and I were just flipping through the channels and found the Jerry Lewis Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy. It was the local portion of the show, and we didn’t stay long; we’ll send in our contribution this week.

I believe I have contributed to this charity every Labor Day Weekend since I can remember, either by asking my parents to send in my pennies, or by volunteering at the Telethon centers, and in various fund-raising affairs. Now -and since I was 20, I guess- it’s just “send a check.”

Over at Inside Catholic, Deal Hudson is watching the show and writes:

After ten minutes, it appears this may be Jerry’s last year. Already he has told two jokes that shouldn’t have been told in front of an audience filled with children. I would guess he is heavily medicated given his recurrent illnesses over the past years. . . .

He still sings pretty well though for a guy born in 1926, although he understandably runs out of breath. I rarely miss the close of the show when he sings, “When you walk through a storm…..”

Lewis has never disclosed the reason he became an advocate for those with muscular dystrophy and related diseases. Am I alone in hoping one day, after his death, that reason will be disclosed? There’s an important biography waiting to be written about Jerry Lewis, one that I hope will cut through the kitsch he disguises himself with and make the case for his greatness, both as an artist and a man.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” (or “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” I’ve heard it called) is from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel, and Lewis’ rendition of it is yes, schmaltzy, but affecting, still.

I recall working on the Telethon one year and my little supply table was not far off the stage. Lewis’ sang and everyone wept; people who’d worked the show for years wept. Yes, some people were just exhausted and their tears were a measure of that. But everyone wept. People knew it was schmaltz but wept, still, because beneath the almost overwhelming sentimentality of it all there was something very true, and identifiable. Everyone has been afraid of the dark. Everyone has felt alone, isolated, hopeless. Exhausted.

Lewis sings the song for his “kids” (and yes, I’m completely aware that some people with MDA resent that designation) but I’ve always thought that, in a way, he was singing it for himself. He is 83 years old, now, and both venerable and obnoxious, but he is still -eternally- a little boy working very hard for attention, validation and company.

Last February, Lewis received an honorary statue from the Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his ceaseless work on behalf of Muscular Dystrophy, and it was recognition long-overdue. In 1977, back when it still meant something, Lewis was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Rep. Les Aspin, (D-Wis).

Current audiences probably cannot appreciate how immensely huge Lewis was in the world of comedy and film. He’s been in show business for most of his life, beginning in Vaudeville, just as it was beginning to die out.

Jerry Lewis has a big ego and a big mouth. He won acclaim for his performance as the nasty talk-show host in The King of Comedy and some wags said he was barely acting. On the other hand, in his book, Big Julie of Vegas, that city’s famous Julius Weintraub recalled gifting Lewis with a Mezuzah pendant and Lewis clutching it to his chest in tears saying, “this is the best thing anyone has ever given me.”

He cannot have been an easy man to deal with. While his comedy is not to everyone’s taste (I love some of his films, cringe at others), his creativity and innovated ideas are hard to deny.

Jerry Lewis is a complicated man, larger-than-life man, and I suspect he is imbued with complicated, larger-than-life emotions. But one sense that where he loves, he loves greatly, which means he is capable of huge hurt, as well. His book Dean and Me: (A Love Story), is an unabashed declaration of lasting affection for his ex-partner, Dean Martin.

It would take a supremely gifted biographer to do him justice.

I wrote of him, back in February:

While doing a little volunteering for MDA, ‘way back in the day, I got to watch Lewis in action at a fund-raiser. He was loud, impatient, and boorish in exactly the way one can be loud, impatient and boorish over one’s passions. He was also focused, capable of quiet one-on-one and selfless listening – a strange hybrid, part narcissist, part servant. For the brief time I saw him, he was a ball of energy, and quite simply all for those suffering from neuromuscular diseases.

I’ve never forgotten it. I came away thinking that Lewis was “a right bastard,” in the sense that he would not allow anyone or anything to divert the energy he meant for “his people.” A “right bastard” in the way people with vision can be single-minded, stubborn, difficult, magnificent bastards.

Included in that post was a very moving story about the off-camera, private Lewis who was capable of great kindness and generosity, but then (as I wrote here: ” . . .we most of us do our share of good, proportionate to our means and connections…” From that perspective, of course, we are all both remarkable and common. But perhaps when we see public figures who puzzle or frustrate us, the stories of small personal kindnesses are helpful.

Anyway, if you get a chance, peek in on the telethon this year, and make a donation, if you can. The MDA is an incredible organization of great people who do a lot of good for a lot of families, and whose research has resulted in many therapeutic applications, even outside of treatment for dystrophic disease.

Who knows how much longer we’ll have Jerry to roll our eyes at and admire? And, perhaps echoing this, remember; there is nothing to be afraid of.

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  • Ellen

    I’ve always thought that Jerry Lewis was all right in very (very) small doses. I’ve lost track of the times when I watched him and was thinking “That’s funny Jerry, now stop” but he never did.

    To this day, I can’t abide hearing “You’ll never walk alone”. My tolerance for sappy stuff only goes so far. An old classmate of mine has MD, and I pray that they soon find a cure.

  • dellbabe68

    The MS Phonathon was my very first contribution, made many moons ago, for four dollars. I think it was tooth money.

  • freemo

    An interesting fact about “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Liverpool FC and Celtic FC (an English and a Scottish football (soccer) clubs) both have YNWA as their theme songs. I’m a Liverpool supporter here in the states and there’s nothing like hearing YNWA sung by 40,000+ people at Anfield (Liverpool’s home). The sentiments may be schmatlzy, but there is something about them that bring people together. If you support Liverpool, then you are a part of a family.

    I support teams in America too (Penguins, Steelers) but I don’t feel that sense of togetherness for supporting them as I do supporting Liverpool. And I think that has a lot to do with the song. If you are a red, then you’ll never walk alone.

  • James

    No mention of the French who have always considered Jerry Lewis a bona fide genius.

    They were also great admirers of Chaplin, Mickey Mouse and … believe it or not … Mickey Rourke, decades before The Wrestler.

  • http://dymphnaroad.blogspot.com/ dymphna

    Oh this brings back memories. I used to hate the telethon. It meant that I’d have to go back to school the next day.

  • Nick

    I’m not sure if this is true, but I’ve been told his cause is now opened up to include stem cell research. If true, then a Catholic cannot in good conscience follow it.

    [I have not heard that, but if it is about ADULT stem cell research, then there is still no problem -admin]

  • Louise

    Has anyone checked lately to discover whether the muscular dystrophy research foundation is using aborted human fetal material?

  • Steve P in Sparta, Wis.

    About Jerry Lewis being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize: There is no formal nomination process for the Nobel Prizes; anyone can “nominate” anyone else simply by writing a letter. To be so “nominated” is not in itself a sign of any great accomplishment

    [I haven't been nominated yet, have you? :-) -admin]

  • Maria

    I believe that the reason that Jerry started the telethon is that many years ago, at the beginning of his career, he would do a slap-sticky routine where he walked/talked “funny” very similar to someone who has physical disabilities. A child in the audience who had MS told him how much that routine hurt him, and the rest, as they say, is history.