August 4, 2011

THE SKED: Jerry Lewis and the End of a Labor Day Era

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Before reality television, there was the Jerry Lewis Telethon.  
Back in the 1970s, if you lived on the East Coast and turned on your TV early in the morning of Labor Day, it was still dead of night in Las Vegas, where the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon was based.  At that point, the telethon was perhaps 12 hours into its 21 1/2-hour length, all of those hours personally anchored by Jerry Lewis–a marathon and an endurance test.  With most audiences asleep, the tote boards would quiet down, and it was briefly unclear whether the cause would meet its goal for the year.  That was when Jerry Lewis stopped acting like a genial master of ceremonies and showed the side of showbiz that he’d later use for the Jerry Langford character in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.  Cigarette burning down in his hand (you could still smoke on TV back then), his voice hoarse from a dozen hours of hosting (and–who knows?–maybe a couple of Scotches), he would wave off the control room’s cue to introduce the next act and instead harangue the audience for not contributing enough, not caring enough, for deserting his kids–furious, sarcastic, contemptuous, pleading.  It was raw in a way that today’s nonstop celebrity coverage never touches–it was scary.  And it worked.  In every year except when the country was in the depths of recession, that total steadily rose.  And hours after that, practically dead on his feet, Jerry Lewis would deliver a rendition of the telethon’s signature song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” that was a psychodrama in itself.

The telethon is for a worthy cause, of course, and calling in with a pledge, one could feel good about helping Jerry’s Kids–but on some other level, there was the feeling of buying a ticket to a show that was unlike anything else on the air.  With Lewis in charge, it was charity with an edge.
Lewis has been the host of the telethon to raise funds for those suffering from muscular dystrophy since 1954, when it was a 4-hour show that aired only on Channel 5 in New York, and he singlehandedly built it into a transcontinental behemoth that at its peak included stars from Streisand to Sinatra (who famously reunited Lewis with his ex-partner Dean Martin during one of the telecasts).  Today it was quietly announced via press release that his services for the charity are done.  He’s 85 years old, and has had many health problems of his own, and that could be explanation enough, but there appears to be more to the story–he had announced in May that this year would be his final telethon, and suddenly he’s won’t even make a valedictory appearance next month, and he’s resigned his position as Chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association as well–and perhaps the details will ultimately come out.  It’s no secret that Lewis has never been the easiest person to deal with; as recently as this week, he made news at the Television Critics Association session promoting an upcoming documentary about him by denouncing shows like American Idol and The Biggest Loser, saying “The industry has destroyed itself.”
No replacement host has been announced yet for the MDA Telethon, but in recent years the telecast has been a shadow of itself, with fewer hours, more pre-packaged film segments, fewer big stars.  Perhaps the new guy will be the omnipresent Ryan Seacrest, as smooth as a hosting human being can be (he’s the Michael Bay of TV hosts).  With Jerry Lewis, it was more like having John Cassavetes as Master of Ceremonies– for over 50 years, he was the host as Auteur.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."