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The Bootleg Files: The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon

BOOTLEG FILES 603: “The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon” (a 1966-2010 annual televised fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association).

LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces can be found on YouTube and other video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No attempt was made to release the entire telethon broadcasts in their entirety for home entertainment viewing.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: None.

For many people, this week’s passing of Jerry Lewis was followed by commentary and articles on his classic films. But for my generation – those who grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s – the emotional connection to Lewis was less about his movies and more about the bizarre, elephantine mayhem that he unleashed annually on the American public over the Labor Day weekend that became known as the “Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon.” Never in the history of fundraising has a greater display of slapstick, vulgarity and pathos been slapped together around the personality of someone who was certainly the most brilliant egomaniac in show business.

Jerry Lewis’ focus on using occasional television appeals to raise money on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) dated back to the 1950s, first during his partnership years with Dean Martin and then as a solo performer. But this approach was scattershot and often too spontaneous to have a lasting impact on the general public. In 1966, Lewis hosted the first edition of his telethon from New York over the Labor Day weekend, which was traditionally considered a dead time period for entertainment because so many people used that time for vacations or other activities. Working from the Americana Hotel with only a single station broadcasting the event – WNEW-TV Channel 5, an independent New York outlet – the telethon raised an astonishing $1,002,114 from viewers calling into the station. Lewis and his team were caught off-guard – their display board for the funds being donated was designed to accommodate a six-digit sum, not the seven-digit total. Lewis repeated the telethon over the Labor Day weekend in 1967 on WNEW-TV and raised $1.12 million.

In 1968, Lewis and MDA began to syndicate the Labor Day telethon over a loose confederation of independent channels, creating what they called the Love Network. Originally beginning with four channels in the Love Network – two in upstate New York, two in Massachusetts – the telethon grew year by year (with Lewis relocating the show to Las Vegas) until it peaked in 1976 with 213 stations carrying a 21.5-hour production. Of course, 1976 saw the most beloved moment of the telethon, when Frank Sinatra coordinated a surprise reunion with Lewis and Dean Martin after a 20-year rift between the one-time partners.

But lest we forget, the warmth and goodwill of the Martin and Lewis reunion was actually the exception to the rule. In reality, the telethon was a hodgepodge crazy house that wobbled into all emotional spaces. Because the show was broadcast live and was not scripted, and because Lewis’ temperament could spin and turn with no warning, viewers were constantly assaulted with some of the weirdest entertainment imaginable. In fact, one of the more sedate moments happened in 1975 when Lewis challenged his viewers to pledge more than $18 million with the promise of taking his pants off during the show if the mark was reached. It was and he did, stripping his pants and prancing about while his orchestra played the show’s theme, “What the World Needs Now is Love.”

Lewis would pack his telethons with star power – albeit mostly Las Vegas stand-up comics and assorted oddballs – but, occasionally, a genuine icon would grace the stage. One of the oldest surviving clips online is a 1968 telethon moment featuring a very rare live TV appearance by Joan Crawford, who read a poem called “The Clumsy Falling Down Child,” about a youth afflicted by muscular dystrophy. Crawford was visibly nervous and Lewis sensed it, treating her with dignity while graciously greeting her daughter Christina, who joined her mother in answer phones during the broadcast.

More typical was a 1986 segment with Lewis singing “Make ‘em Laugh” while joined on stage with B-list stand-up perennials Rip Taylor, Fred Travalena, Norm Crosby, Marty Allen, Charlie Callas, and Wayland Flowers and Madame. Each comic is given a minute to do his shtick, ranging from the sublime (Rip Taylor running a handkerchief under his toupee) to the cryptic (Charlie Callas imitating a tap-dancing alligator). Everyone sang off key and the men on stage seemed to be having more fun than the audience members.

One year in the 80s, pro wrestling manager Bobby Heenan came on stage and exclaimed, “I remember when you had that little puppet Lamb Chop,” to which Lewis barked, “No, no, no – that’s Shari Lewis! What the hell are you talking about?” Lewis grabbed and swung Heenan around, who asked the host to sing “Great Balls of Fire.” Lewis stated, “No, that’s Jerry Lee Lewis.” But when Heenan asked, “What do you do?”, Lewis proclaimed, “What do I do? I’m a Jew in heat.”

Lewis made the happy mistake of having Don Rickles as a guest in 2003. Lewis was physically bloated at the time due to steroid treatment of a chronic lung ailment. The always caustic Rickles referred to Lewis as a “Jew whale” and launched into politically incorrect comments about black tap dancers that left many audience members uneasy.

But Lewis didn’t need guests to be tactless. Indeed, for years he was the subject of criticism for what some perceived as the exploitation of “Jerry’s Kids” in efforts to solicit funds. But the on-screen Lewis was often a complete maniac when it came to inappropriate behavior. When armless guitarist Tony Melendez performed on the telethon in 1990 and received a standing ovation, Lewis humorlessly remarked, “He wouldn’t settle for the bad hand he got.” When Charo bent over Lewis in 2000 while wearing an extraordinarily low-cut gown, Lewis glanced at her breasts and declared, “It’s feeding time!” And Lewis hit a low point in 2007 when he referred to the son of one of his camera operators as an “illiterate fag.”

The ultimate inanity came at the show’s close, with Lewis singing (sometime in key, often not) the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone” – an odd choice, considering how muscular dystrophy robs people of their mobility. Still, it was the perfect way to end the most imperfect of shows.

After the 2010 telethon, the MDA opted to change its fundraising strategy. Although that year’s telethon reached 190 stations plus social media outlets, Lewis’ waning health and a weakening in donations were seen by the nonprofit as evidence of a much-needed change. The show’s length was drastically cut and Lewis was dropped as both host and MDA’s chairman. The truncated, Lewis-free telethon continued for three years until the MDA decided to pull the plug.

The full-length telethons were never released in any home entertainment format, nor has there ever been a “best of” collection of telethon highlights. And while the MDA has its own YouTube channel showing Lewis at his best, dozens of fans have unauthorized clips of Lewis at his most extreme online. And thanks to those individuals, the full legacy of Lewis’ telethons survives him.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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