Belated Farewell To The Jerry Lewis Telethon

Belated Farewell To The Jerry Lewis Telethon September 12, 2011

When I was a little kid I held a Labor Day neighborhood carnival for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.  I still credit it as my first real social action project.

I used to love the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon.  I think I just liked all the ritziness of it and seeing the stars on TV long after the stations had usually gone over to a test pattern.  I’d watch it all night and day.  Last week for the first time in 45 years, the telethon (what’s left of it) went on without the Nutty Professor.  He was unceremoniously dumped by the organization.

Now I know that Jerry Lewis could be a real putz.  He sometimes said dumb things.  And the way he pushed his cause could be very insulting to disabled people, especially by our more sensitive modern standards.  Yet the man was trying to do some good in the world in a way that he knew how.  So I was pretty ticked off when I saw this on The Nation’s website:

This Labor Day, for the first time in forty-five years, there won’t be a Jerry Lewis telethon on TV. It will be a great day for people with disabilities.

The writer goes on to list all of the embarrassing things that Lewis did and how insensitive he was to people with disabilities.

His criticisms may be true.  Certainly by a decade or two ago, the tactics he used to create sympathy for his “kids” were a bit insulting.

However, the man did raise hundreds of millions of dollars that went directly into improving the quality of life for millions of disabled people.  Those funds were put to good use and the beneficiaries of the Muscular Dystrophy Association are far better off today than they would have been had Jerry Lewis not come along.

The style of fundraising that Lewis did is a thing of the past, but I refuse to “celebrate” the end of a project that helped so many people.  In a world of selfishness and cruelty, we should always honor acts of lovingkindness, even if in retrospect we might have done things differently.

Lewis was a product of his time.  He was often schmaltzy and inappropriate.  But he worked very hard to do an enormous amount of good for many people.  For that he should be applauded and appreciated.


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  • Anonymous

    I worked as a volunteer counselor for 2 summers, 2 weeks each summer, in a camp for kids with muscular dystrophy. I also worked the telethons for several years, round the clock, from beginning to end. I had friends with MD who were adults and had a lot of gripes against MDA for its lack of handicapped representation on its boards. But no one ever complained about Jerry and all the money he raised and the good that came of it. I cannot imagine what he did to be so unceremoniously dumped, when he could have been given a spectacular retirement farewell at 85 years old. The “Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon” is no more, and that is a sad thing.

    The Reform Deist