The Muscular Dystrophy Association announced that it will end its annual Labor Day Telethon — an American institution that has aired for 48 years.
Comedian Jerry Lewis, who hosted the event from 1966 to 2010 when he left under murky circumstances, had no comment on the announcement. The 89-year old entertainer was the signature personality for the telethon and since his departure, the event had seen donations drop and interest by celebrities to appear flag.
The telethon was a relic from a different age, a tuxedoed Lewis oozing show biz schmaltz and hosting stars from Frank Sinatra to Jennifer Lopez over 45 years, pushing through his exhaustion to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as a tote board rang up millions of dollars in donations.
From 21 and a half hours in Lewis’ final year, the show had been reduced to two hours the last two years on ABC.
“It’s not a 21-hour world anymore,” said Steve Ford, MDA executive vice president, on Friday.
With television time costly, the MDA’s fundraising efforts will move primarily online, he said. The success of a viral event like “The Ice Bucket Challenge” proves this is a potent area for philanthropy, he said.
“The real heroes have always been our families, and what we need to do is make sure that every dollar we raise is spent working for our families,” he said.
The Labor Day tote board hit a record of $65 million in 2008, a figure Ford said reflected a full year’s worth of fundraising activities capped off by the telethon. The MDA says the telethon itself has been responsible for more than $2 billion in giving.
Lewis’ abrupt exit, announced by the MDA a month before the 2011 telethon, was never fully explained.
The 89-year-old comedian declined to comment on Friday’s announcement, a spokeswoman said.
His history with the charity goes back nearly to its beginning: the MDA was started in 1950 and, a year later, Lewis and his comic partner Dean Martin mentioned the charity on their NBC show. The two comics hosted a 1956 telethon before breaking up. Lewis began hosting it regularly in 1966, starting on a single television station in New York.
The telethon was not without controversy; in the early 1990s it was picketed by a handful of disabled people who said people with the disease were being made objects of pity by Lewis to raise money.
Yet his roster through the years represented a who’s who of entertainment, including a post-Beatles John Lennon, Michael Jackson singing with and without his brothers, Liberace, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Celine Dion. Former Johnny Carson sidekick Ed McMahon filled the same role with Lewis on Labor Day for many years.
In 1976, Sinatra engineered a reunion of Lewis with Martin, his estranged former partner.
At its height, the “Love Network” featured 213 stations carrying the telethon in every television market in America. Local tie ins increased interest and donations.
The irrepressible Lewis brought energy and show-biz pizazz to the broadcast, being on a first name basis with the biggest stars in Hollywood. His jokes could be lame, and his schtick got tired over the course of 21 hours of the broadcast, but his interaction with the victims was sincere and heartwarming.
No matter what I was doing on Labor Day, right before 7:00 PM when the show was set to sign off, I always made sure to watch Lewis battle his exhaustion and emotions to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — the brilliant Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the musical Carousel. It was shameless emotionalism but great showmanship.
It is estimated that more than $2 billion was raised for MD during the life of the telethon. Much progress has been made in battling the disease, but no cure has been found yet. The MDA Labor Day Telethon brought prominence to a once obscure disease and demonstrated the power of the medium to improve society.