End of the line for the Labor Day Telethon

Stick a fork in the Labor Day telethon for Muscular Dystrophy.

“The decision to end our beloved telethon was not made lightly,” said MDA President and CEO Steven M. Derks said in a new release this afternoon. “In the last few years, the show was adjusted to reflect changes in viewership and donor patterns, and last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge once again affirmed for us that today’s families, donors and sponsors are looking to us for new, creative and organic ways to support our mission.”

Who knew the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge would kill off the Telethon?

It’s a reflection on us. We’re just not that in to TV anymore.

For more than 50 years, of course, the Telethon was Jerry Lewis’ baby. He’d stay on the air for nearly 24 hours.

But then the MDA and Lewis split; he didn’t even get the opportunity to say goodbye, Time.com said at the time.

To be sure, dealing with Lewis, now 86, has never been a walk in the park. His annual Labor Day orgy of sentiment, self-regard and showbiz schmaltz was for many years something of a punch line. (“You know why they love Jerry Lewis in France,” a comedian told me not long ago. “In France, they don’t get the telethon.”) Still, he raised an estimated $2 billion for “Jerry’s kids” over more than a half-century with the MDA, and a well-orchestrated, celebrity-studded farewell to him on the telethon might have been a fundraising bonanza.

MDA officials continue to maintain that Lewis simply retired. “We honor Jerry Lewis, we admire the work he’s done for us, and we respect his decision to retire,” says Valerie Cwik, the MDA’s interim president. (She replaced Gerald Weinberg, who was reportedly behind Lewis’s ouster and who stepped down as president last December, after 54 years with the organization.) And she insists that the changes in the telethon are part of a necessary evolution in fundraising strategy, to put less emphasis on the once-a-year event. “It has to change because the American audience has changed,” says Cwik. “A 21.5-hour show doesn’t fit in a 140-character world.”

Like the Rat Pack itself, the Telethon didn’t hold up to the test of time.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    Growing up I remember the telethon as a way to mark time on that long weekend before school started. You watched to see what the number would be when they rolled it up at the top of the hour. One of my most lasting memories of watching the telethon was just before the start of my senior year in High School. My family (mostly my father’s doing) adopted a dog just before Labor Day. That weekend he got loose and we spent most of Saturday (or was it Sunday) trying to track him down. Sunday night my Mom and I were watching some of the early bits of the telethon and we hear a scratching at the back door. (The TV was in the “family room” that had the back door as a way out to the yard.) The inside door was open and we saw the face of the newest member of the family peering through the storm door. He had come home on his own.

    The shelter said he had come from the next town over and we think he may have run to his old home. Finding this old family not there he found his way back to our house he settled in with us.

  • Gary F

    It was a good run while it lasted. It’s a great legacy that Jerry left. He should be commended. I do know how they could make a ton of money as a last hurrah. Get the performers to wave their royalty fees and make a big DVD of all the performers from the show and donate it to MDA.

    I remember WTCN’s Stuart A Lindman, would come on Channel 11 and tell us kids we had to have a backyard carnival to raise money for MDA. We would bring our pennies and nickels to neighbor’s home and have what we thought then was pretty lame backyard games that cost you a penny. During the telethon, they would go to local broadcasting at WTCN-11 and have some kid in Robinsdale or somewhere raise like $30-40 bucks in his/her backyard carnival we always wanted to go to his or her carnival, because all the ones we went to weren’t really that fun.

  • tboom

    In my opinion the Labor Day Telethon was always lame, Labor Day is the last gasp of summer and I wasn’t going to waste the time in front of bad television. But lame or not the Telethon was a heck of a fundraiser, my Grandfather would watch about 15 minutes of the thing and phone in a big pledge just because “if it’s Jerry Lewis and all these other performers are involved, it must be a good cause”.

    I suspect Jerry Lewis discovered what all of us of a certain age are discovering, when you start to look old and they’ve seen you in action for a while, nobody wants to employ you no matter what you’ve done for them in the past (and regardless of your capabilities). I’m all for “creative destruction” but when you destroy something, you really ought to consider what you’re going to do for a replacement.