Friday, September 02, 2005

Staying Up to Watch the Stars Come Out

It's not a local show, but it has aired locally since 1970, and it's worth a moment of our time as we approach the holiday weekend. We're talking, of course, about the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon, this one being Jerry's 40th holiday installment, although he has done countless other non-Labor Day shows going back as far as his days with Dean Martin.

As it has for the past 35 years, KMTV will air the program from Los Angeles' Beverly Hilton Hotel beginning at 7 a.m. Monday and ending at 6 p.m. Greg Peterson and Mary Williams will host the annoying-but-profitable local cutaways. (The telethon itself begins at 8 p.m. CDT on Sunday, but about ten years ago, Omaha's Muscular Dystrophy Association office decided to forego the first 11 hours of the 21+ hour broadcast to maximize its net gain from local pledges. You can catch the first couple of hours live at MDA's website; Superstation WGN from Chicago joins the program at 10 p.m.).

Lewis, who is now 79, has spent less time on the program in recent years due to his own ongoing battle with pulmonary fibrosis. In many ways, it's surprising that Jerry's still alive, much less hosting the show. When he was first stricken with the disease in 2001, his appearance—altered by steroids that caused him to gain close to 100 pounds—shocked many and suggested that he wouldn't be around for Telethon 2002. Given that Jerry's ailment typically kills its victims within five years of onset, such speculation was not unfounded. However, Jerry now appears nearly as healthy as he was prior to the illness, having dropped at least 60 of his unwanted pounds after weaning himself from the steroids. While he moves more slowly than he has in the past, remember that he is closing in on 80 years old.

Like Lewis himself, his telethon has seen its vitality wane in the past decade or two. For one thing, many of the program's orginal mainstays—Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra, to name two—have died or retired.

A second factor is that the broadcast has become more heavily scripted than it was in the early days, when Jerry would regularly find himself with ten or fifteen minutes to fill. Sometimes he'd plunge into the audience with buckets and badger the crowd for money, while at others, with his eyes glazed over from too little sleep and too much Percodan, he'd scold viewers at home for not being forthcoming enough with the pledges his kids needed. In short, you never knew what was going to happen.

As David Letterman once told an interviewer, the program was riveting because it showed us "a volatile guy in a volatile circumstance with no sleep in front of a live Las Vegas audience at two in the morning—you just don't get that kind of excitement anywhere else. "

Now, virtually every minute is filled with corporate sponsors, short videos of dystrophic children and adults, and pre-taped appeals from the sorts of celebrities who, in the old days, would come onstage to talk with Jerry and then deliver their messages.

But the factor that has dissipated the telethon's impact more than any other is cable television.

If you lived in Omaha in the 1970s, your television set offered three options—Channel 3, Channel 6, and Channel 7. (If you count a snowy Channel 10 from Lincoln, or an oddly-hued signal on Channel 26, you had five options.) Except in the case of an enormous news event, none of these stations was on past 1:00 or 1:30 in the morning. So when Labor Day weekend rolled around and there was a chance to see live entertainment from Las Vegas' Sahara Hotel all night long, many of us were only too happy to "Stay Up With Jerry and Watch the Stars Come Out," as Ed McMahon exhorted us to do. (This will be Ed's 38th telethon. As he tells it, he stopped by Manhattan's Americana Hotel—the show's original home—in 1968 to make a short appearance when Lewis asked him to fill in briefly while Lewis took a break. That turned into an hour, then two, three, and, to make a long story short, McMahon has been there as Jerry's sidekick ever since.)

By the mid-80s, however, the television landscape was almost a reverse image of what it had been just a decade earlier. And in 2005, there are few stations that aren't on 24/7. If, like most people, you have cable or satellite service, there are dozens of things to watch at any hour of the day or night. And that's to say nothing of rentable movies and TiVo. In short, television finally caught up with Jerry, and gave us, on a daily basis, what Jerry knew we wanted back in 1966 when he hosted his first Labor Day telethon: non-stop entertainment.

Having raised close to two billion dollars for MDA in 39 previous telethons, Lewis has earned a place among the great humanitarians of our time, whether you like him or not. Indeed, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will award him an Emmy later this month to recognize his unflagging commitment to the cause.

So if you have a chance on Monday, spend a few minutes with Jerry and Ed. If you watch long enough, you may even glimpse a little of the spontaneity that once made the Jerry Lewis Telethon "must-see TV." As McMahon is likely to say, "even if you miss a little, you'll miss a lot."


telethon lover said...

Greg Petersen and Mary Williams will be the local hosts for the MDA Telethon.

Sean Weide said...

Here are Jerry's year-to-year totals:

1966- $1,002,114
1967- $1,126,846
1968- $1,401,876
1969- $2,039,139
1970- $5,093,385
1971- $8,125,387
1972- $9,200,074

Last year's telethon total was only the second time in 39 years that it failed to surpass the previous year's total. The drop was attributed to Hurricane Frances, which caused massive power outages and other problems in Florida.

Some other telethon facts:
The 1994 edition was the first time that Jerry not on all night and the last one broadcast from Las Vegas. He had an eight-hour break from midnight-8 a.m. Pacific time). Filling the time was several hours of pre-tape from Branson, Mo.

Jerry has had that long break ever since. The orchestra for first time since maybe 1972 (the last year in New York) lacked a string section and the set was smaller.

In 1995, the telethon returned to Hollywood.

Ted Brockman said...

Aside from their presence for Jerry's final number last year, strings have not been in the orchestra since 1993.

Sean Weide said...

My mistake.

Mickey said...

your post brought back some great memories, almost forgot the telethon.
Thank god for the mute button though..

You are visitor number