For so many of us, the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon has been part of our earliest memories, a steady and dependable marker in the year. I am 52 years old. I cannot remember a time when Lewis and the telethon were not around.
My parents would keep the telethon on all day while firing up the last barbecue of the season, and we kids would hector them to be allowed to phone in a pledge. We’d go about the neighborhood picking up spare change and tally it up, just like the big board on tv! In that way, we felt very connected to what we considered an almost unimaginable, larger-than-life effort on Lewis’ part to eradicate illness and therefore (in a manner of speaking) sadness. Lewis, himself has always seemed to me to be a very sad little boy who had enough spirit, imagination and determination to lift himself from his own despair. Perhaps sadness, being a constant companion, was also an enemy and a muse, and it informed all of his work, onscreen and in this.
For barbarians like us, the telethon was a heroic pageant: it was dramatic, flamboyant, humbling, sometimes exasperating, often inspiring, always involving drama that dangled a promise of victory.
So it is with some regret that I read of his retirement from the MDA helm:
“As a labor of love, I’ve hosted the annual telethon since 1966 and I’ll be making my final appearance on the show this year by performing my signature song, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’” Lewis said.
In an effort to boost viewership and income, this year’s telethon will be shortened to six hours — rather than the normal 21 and a half — and is scheduled for Sept. 4.
That exhausting 21 and-a-half hours is telling. Without Lewis captaining the ship, it’s probably much more difficult to convince people to give up time, talent, equipment, air. But it will seem wrong to not hear him sing that song anymore:
. . .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.
I have written about Lewis before, here:
The subject of Lewis once came up in a class of mine and the instructor – a stickler to the lesson plan – broke away from it to praise him: “let me tell you about Jerry Lewis. My brother has [I can’t remember the disease – admin] and our whole family has benefited, all his life, from the MDA and Lewis’ commitment to it. One year my brother wrote a fan letter to Lewis and in it mentioned in passing that his dog had died. Next thing we know, we get a phone call from Lewis’s office asking if my brother could meet him at the airport. We did, and here comes Jerry Lewis, and he’s carrying a puppy that he puts into my brother’s lap. He was between flights and he spent nearly a half-hour with my brother and the rest of us, just talking – letting my brother know he mattered. You cannot say a bad word to me, about this man.”
By the time she finished the story she was in tears, as were many of us.
He’s no saint, of course. His career has had ups and downs and many of the downs were of his own making. He has a huge ego and lots of public faults – but he is also famously generous. When Stan Laurel died, Lewis paid for his funeral and settled all his debts. He is also a man of his age and era. Having outlived so many of his contemporaries, Lewis has offended this generation with his opinions, as when (apparently ignorant of the likes of Lucielle Ball, Carole Lombard, Madeline Kahn, Judy Holliday and many others) he suggested a few years back that women were not funny.
Perhaps he just doesn’t give a damn about offending people and figures everyone is entitled to their opinion.
And of my very brief exposure to him:
. . . ‘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 . . .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.
Now, I ask myself if Lewis is a hero to me, and I think the answer must be “yes.” Heavy-handed he might sometimes be, but the man I watched on the telethon, both from a distance and close-up, was quite simply, quite nakedly all for this organization and the people it served, and his sense of mission was palpable. Aside from the nuns of my earliest years, his was the first example of altruism that clearly came through my self-obsessed-child’s radar.
I mean, it occurs to me that he is the only “celebrity” name in my categories. So I guess he matters to me more than I even know. Jerry Lewis and the telethon is a true connection to something solidly good and instructive in my youth. If I have any generous instincts at all, the telethon may actually be a sort of ground-zero in the formation of them.
UPDATED: Okay, here’s another reason why Lewis is a hero — got an email from Kevin Knight at New Advent who writes:
I have a friend whose young husband was diagnosed with ALS. Somehow, Jerry Lewis got wind of it. He took the initiative in setting up additional consultations and treatments, invited the family to spend the day with him at his Las Vegas home, and took their little boy out to San Diego to drive his yacht. (Keep in mind that my friends are nobodies.)
A mensch. We all have feet of clay; we all have our darker moments and our stupidities and times where we do something that is incoherent with the life we want to live or the person we think we are. But that’s mensch-behavior.
Maria Johnson: On Meeting Her Soul Mate at the Telethon and more:
We became friends because we had the same interests, which we discovered over the course of 24 hours spent sitting beside each other answering phones and chatting during the lulls in the wee hours. We were there because we liked Jerry Lewis, and were then driven to support his charity of choice. Needless to say, MDA became our pet charity. I don’t know how much money we’ve given to that organization over the years, and I suppose that is how it should be, but even in the lean years, we managed to cough up a little something to send. In thanksgiving, perhaps, for the organization bringing us together.
Or maybe, it was something else. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll know that last year John was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS –Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Deacon Greg: Labor Day won’t be the same