What We Can Learn From Jerry Lewis’ MDA Legacy
I was reading USA Today on Aug. 21 when I noticed that Jerry Lewis had passed away. The USA Today article started with saying, “… at the end of a remarkable show business life, Jerry Lewis might best remembered for ‘Jerry’s Kids,’ children with muscular dystrophy.”
USA Today reported that Lewis was born in Newark, NJ, and began performing at age 5 with his vaudeville entertainer father and piano-playing mother. He later changed his professional name to Joey Lewis and then to Jerry to avoid confusion with heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis.
Growing up as a child in West Virginia, I always knew when summer was ending. We did not start school until after Labor Day, so Labor Day signaled the end to summer. I always knew it was Labor Day when I turned on the television set and saw Lewis. He served as national chairman and host of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) Telethon for 44 years (1966 to 2010). These telethons generated more than $2 billion dollars. It was Lewis’ annual fight against neuromuscular disease.
“The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon” was held the night before and during Labor Day in the U.S. It was originally broadcast for up to 21 ½ hours. The telethon was also known for Lewis’ closing song “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Ed McMahon was Lewis’ longtime co-host.
On Aug. 3, 2011, it was announced that Lewis would no longer host the telethon and be associated with the MDA, according to Wikipedia. On May 1, 2015, it was announced that in view of “the new realities of television viewing and philanthropic giving,” that the telethon was being discontinued. It cited the viral success of the Ice Bucket Challenge that built new awareness and funds to combat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. In 2016, Lewis made an online video that would be his last supporting statement of MDA.
According to Mental Floss, TV’s first telethon took place in 1949. It was New York’s Damon Runyon Memorial Cancer Fund Telethon hosted by Milton Berle. Lewis appeared on this telethon with his partner Dean Martin. This duo also appeared on the 1952 Olympic Fund Telethon hosted by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. They also hosted other telethons until their split. The first MDA Telethon kicked off in 1966 and raised $1 million.
There were accusations that he pocketed some of the donated funds. He vigorously denied the claims and said he gave $7 million personally. He also had to fight against charges he exploited “his kids,” portraying them as pitiable victims who just needed a large charity to support them. Lewis also fought these charges. Many of the biggest celebrities in show business appeared with Lewis on the telethon throughout the years, including U.S. President Ronald Reagan. A long-standing mystery has been why Lewis choose MDA to invest his time, talent and treasure. Lewis never revealed the reason, but one belief is his frightening memory of possibly having a debilitating disease.
TIME notes in this article that Lewis is the pioneer of the telethon concept, which is an American tradition. The 1970s and 1980s were a boom era for telethons in general. Production costs of telethons were typically $0.25 to $0.33 of every dollar raised, while charities could only collect 60 to 75 percent of dollars pledged. That said, Lewis’ MDA program remains one of the most enduring hallmarks in history. Modern day several-hour telethons have been scaled down to support specific catastrophes, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
The telethon is a vehicle for charity, but the total success of the telethon is not on the disease to be cured but the entertainers perceived to support these fundraising efforts. I was drawn to watch the MDA Telethon because of one person—Jerry Lewis. I was blessed to have seen this comic genius in movies, such as “The Nutty Professor,” “The Bellboy,” “The Stooge,” “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” “Cinderfella,” “The Ladies Man,” “The Disorderly Orderly,” “The King of Comedy,” and “Artists and Models.”
Many fundraising techniques have been tied to technology. Lewis was fortunate to make the most of television as a venue for his telethon. The world thanks you, Lewis, for enhancing philanthropy through your celebrity and encouraging others to join you. My hope is future celebrities will hear this call and, based upon their own heart and passion, use their celebrity status to raise funds to find cures. Lewis’ kids set an example for others to follow.
Duke has extensive experience as a nonprofit practitioner and consultant. He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO for the last nine years and has had the CFRE designation for the last 25 years. He has also been a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals for over 35 years. He received his doctorate from West Virginia University with an emphasis in philanthropy, masters from Marshall University with an emphasis on resource development and a bachelor's degree from West Virginia University with emphasis in marketing/management. Currently he is executive director of development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division. Contact Duke at firstname.lastname@example.org.