Jerry Lewis Retires from Telethon – UPDATED

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

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Naomi

    Well, and yet…

    As a former poster child and a beneficiary of disability-related charities, I have to tell you, telethons and their creators are sources of GREAT ambivalence for me.

    While in recent years, they have largely tried to shift away from a pity-and-fear focus to one of enabling better lives, they still focus on disability as a negative experience and disabled people as objects of sadness.

    I hate the phrase “Jerry’s kids,”which is used without distinction toward both adults and children.

    Also, all too many disability charities support elective abortion of disabled children as part of their “prevention” strategy, and embryonic stem cell research as an essential means to a cure. (I don’t know whether MDA itself is guilty of this).

    If the quotes I have seen, including “Pity? You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!” are accurate, well then, he achieved some good, but I can’t respect him.

  • Gary Zimak

    I have to say that this news makes me sad. I have vivid memories of watching Jerry and the telethon in my parent’s house when I was young. In fact, in the 80′s, I volunteered to answer telephones for the local broadcast of the telethon.

    While Jerry obviously has his issues, it’s obvious to see that he cares deeply for his “kids” and for his work with MDA. His actions give us an example of how to use our God-given gifts for good purposes.

    Well done, Mr. Lewis…Thanks for the memories!

  • Manny

    I don’t follow celebrities much, but I have the general impression that I’ve mostly heard negative things about Jerry Lewis as a person. Your piece has made me re-evaluate him. Thanks.

    Naomi – I did not know that about abortion as a prevention strategy. I will need to look more closely.

  • chris davis

    I am sorry to see that Jerry Lewis is leaving the show but am glad that he is staying with the foundation. He is a wonderful beautiful human being and deserves a nobel peace prize if he hasnt already. God Bless you Jerry.

    My brother’s friend had a brother who had MD and he was a wonderful boy. He wasn’t suppose to live past 18th birthday. But sadly he died after the 18th.

  • chris davis

    I never heard anything negative about Jerry Lewis ever.

    Like what?

  • chris davis

    he is a great human being. how dare you say he isn’t. he has done alot good in helping people everywhere. he is using his celebrity title for good. I agree with Gary. You shouldnt talk about him that way.

  • Jean

    Jerry is human, as are we all. He, in his own way, is a great man. He cares. Maybe not the way some think he should,but he cares. He could have done a lot of things all these past 44 Labor Days, but he chose, CHOSE mind you, to spend them in front of a camera literally begging for money so that, yes, Naomi, His Kids could have a better life.
    I will not judge him harshly, I will watch him one last time and cry once again when he sings his signature song “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. God Bless You, Jerry Lewis.

  • David

    MDA does in fact fund embryonic stem cell research. Just google it.

    Here’s a quote from the MDA website

    “Embryonic stem cell treatments have been widely praised for their potential application in the repair and restoration of disease or injury damaged tissues and organs,” said Chris Airriess, chief operating officer at California Stem Cell (CSC) in Irvine, Calif., where he has MDA support to develop stem cell-based therapies for ALS. “This huge milestone reached by Geron is a watershed in the development of the field of regenerative medicine.”

  • Manny

    Chris Davis

    Not exactly sure what I heard as negative about Lewis. Dean Martin wasn’t happy with him for a while. I heard about his being difficult to work with. I’ve heard about his ego.

    Like I said I don’t follow any celebrity crap. So I did a search and came up with this:

    He has also said some unkind words to people. Perhaps innuendo was generated as a counter to his maudlin outbursts on the telethons; people never believe anyone is really all that good. Who knows where it came from.

  • Manny

    “He is a wonderful beautiful human being and deserves a nobel peace prize if he hasnt already. God Bless you Jerry.”

    By the way, Chris Davis, are you secretly Jerry Lewis in disguise? Would not surprise me. ;)

  • Kris, in New England

    Naomi, he is a great human being. how dare you say he isn’t…

    Chris it’s called an opinion and everyone is allowed to have them. Also, I don’t see that Naomi said anything specifically derogatory about Mr. Lewis; she shared her own perspective which does appear unique and from that has made a personal decision not to respect what he does.

    It is – her opinion.

  • Gayle Miller

    I am 69 years old and it seems that Jerry Lewis has been part of my life for my whole life. At 85, he deserves to retire. Yes, the telethon is schmaltzy and maudlin at times. Also yes, some very well known people and organizations devote a great deal of energy and time raising money for MDA. The billions of dollars raised in 45 years has almost entirely been spent on research, rather than big shot executive salaries and for that alone, I think Jerry Lewis deserves praise.

    I believe that he is not a saint. I believe that he is rude and brash and a little crude. I also believe that he sets a magnificent example for all the pampered people in his business who takes constantly and give back nothing! So I won’t hear bad words about the man.

    Maybe if we dialed back our cynicism just a trifle, this would be a better world in which to live? I’m just saying . . .!

  • Lisa

    Before we become critical of someone else’s efforts, perhaps we should look deeply at our own lives, and ask ourselves ” how much have I done for others over the past 40 years ? “

  • Lisa

    Just something to think about.

  • cheryl

    im 48, at the age where when u see toys,old movies give me that childhood feel back! and jerry was my fav feeling of childhood!!the feel of the tv when he was on,the sound of the house when he song ill never walk alone!! and my mom calling to see if i watched him sing it!! i loved his movies him AND dean,and i love him!!BLESSINGS TO HIM AND HIS FAMILY!!! MDA!!!

  • NBW

    I am sorry to see him go. He has done so much! I’d be surprised if another celebrity jumps up to take over the telethon.

  • Alia

    I don’t care whether the man once insulted someone or said something crude. I care that he has devoted countless hours and 45 years to raising money for MD research. Next month, it will be three years since I lost my grandmother to Lou Gehrig’s disease. It was extremely difficult for my family to watch her deteriorate, knowing that her mind was trapped inside a body that could barely work anymore (she could communicate by typing with one finger on a keyboard). Fortunately, she did live long enough for my dad to bring my then-infant niece – her first great-grandchild – to the assisted living home to meet her.

    God Bless, Jerry. I hope someone will pick up the baton and continue the good work you started.

  • bridg12

    Started a Facebook page to support Jerry, and possibly get him back as host. Click ‘like’ to support the cause. Thanks!!/pages/We-Want-Jerry-Lewis-to-Host-the-MDA-Telethon/185616864823686?sk=wall

  • http://aol shirley and family

    Thank you Jerry Lewis for all the telethons you have done we were right next to you watching and also thanks for your movies we still watch them today a big fan of yours Shirley and family

  • http://aol shirley and family

    we love jerry lewis

  • joe winscom

    Before anyone takes a shot at Jerry Lewis,they should take
    a good look at themselves. I have been a fan of Jerr’s for 58 years and have followed all the Telethons since the first
    National one in 1966. He has been involved since 1949.
    In all those years he has NEVER missed a Telethon and
    that includes the last several years when he himself has
    had health problems. I don’t know of too many people who
    would stand in front of millions of people and pour their
    heart out. He got thru my friends the numbers raised don’t
    lie. Look at who we have out there today. Not all for their are some good people left but so many are into themsevlves, they take but do not want to put anything back.Besides the Telethon Jerry travels all the time for MDA.
    He speaks,spends time with as many of the victims as time
    permits,and consoles all the time with Researchers so he
    can convey the latsest info to the American people. God Bless You Jerry,stay well and all of us who have hung in there with you over the years will continue to do so.

  • FoolishMortal

    I think that actions always speak louder than words. Mr. Lewis is human and has faults like we all do. I think that pretty much dedicating half your life to a worthy cause, shows good intention. If your intentions are good, then a few missteps along the way should be forgiven. Just as God has forgiven me my missteps, I should do the same. I believe that I am in no position to judge anyone else. Just sayin’.

  • bridg12

    Started a Facebook page to support Jerry, and possibly get him back as host. Click ‘like’ to support the cause. Thanks!!/pages/We-Want-Jerry-Lewis-to-Host-the-MDA-Telethon/185616864823686?sk=wall

    You might have to copy the address and paste it in your browser address bar. I tried my link that was posted earlier and the link doesn’t work properly.