A Telethon Icon
I’m thinking a lot about Jerry Lewis today, who passed away yesterday at the age of 91, following a remarkable career that touched generations. He and I had met several times in a professional capacity, though he probably wouldn’t have remembered me!
Back in my earliest days in television, I was asked (well, maybe a better word is “informed”) by station management that I was to co-host the local version of the annual Labor Telethon to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association. I was a rookie reporter at the time, so who was I to say no? But the truth was, I was excited to be a part of it. The plan was for me to pair up with longtime local television host, John O’Rourke, to appear in local broadcasts each hour of the telethon, which originated from Las Vegas. Our role was to raise awareness and excitement and money, and to build up support for the cause in our television market of Southern Minnesota and North Iowa.
I was duly shipped off that year to Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas for a long weekend of learning (along with other local TV hosts from around the country) about the Muscular Dystrophy Association and its work. And a big part of that was to spend time with the big guns (Jerry Lewis, Kasey Kasem, and the like) and learn from the pros.
Don’t kid yourself: Jerry was a showman…a manic, rubber-faced comedian who jumped and hollered…anything for a laugh. But he was also tireless and committed as the M.D.A. Chairman and “Ringmaster” of the annual Telethon from the 1960’s through 2011. Though his fundraising efforts were criticized by some as being mawkish or exploitive of children, he never backed down and he never gave up. That’s one reason I stuck with my local television hosting duties for sixteen years, from 1978 until 1993. I learned so much from Jerry and others in my annual pre-Telethon Vegas visits over the years, and got very involved with M.D.A. as a whole. More importantly, I got even more involved with Jerry’s kids, and their families who lived in my area. I believed in the work and I believed in Jerry Lewis.
Our local Telethon at KAAL-TV was a big event. The entire studio would be transformed into “Telethon Central,” with banks of volunteer phone operators to take pledges. We’d interview anyone and everyone who brought in checks from private fundraising events: Chairmen and Presidents of Fortune 500 companies, local business owners, school groups and Boy Scout troops. We talked to doctors and researchers and families who benefited from the work of M.D.A. And we talked to the kids…so many of them, now gone, who have left an indelible impression in my mind after all these years. Some years we had a carnival outside in the station’s parking lot, which brought in a lot of folks from the entire viewing area. It was festive and it was fun! The 24-plus-hour on-air stint was tiring, but I just remember the excitement and the thrill of it. After all, if Jerry could do it, why couldn’t I? Rest in peace, Jerry Lewis.