Labor Day weekend for me will always be connected to Jerry Lewis. His annual 21 ½ hour live telethon raised more than $2 billion over 45 years for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He died last month at the age of 91. I miss him already.
Jerry meant a lot to me as a kid. I was an MDA volunteer from the age of 12. I used to help patients with mobility, assist with fundraising, and every year I would work the telethon in the local Honolulu studio. Satellite time in the 1970s was very expensive, so we didn’t get the national feed for most of the overnight hours. In those blackout periods our producers would put on a nonstop “telethon within a telethon” so we could stay on-air in synch with the east coast six hours ahead and the west coast three hours ahead. Pledges would come in all through the night. Jerry was with us in our hearts whether he was onstage in Vegas or we were broadcasting hula dancers. We did the show together no matter the separation of distance, and we loved the children at the heart of our mission.
I never met the man, but sometimes he would come on the non-broadcast feed between segments and talk to the remote volunteers, so I felt like I knew him. He would thank us for our help and tell us the telethon could not happen without us. I believe he truly loved the kids we served. He wanted to beat neuromuscular diseases in our lifetime. We haven’t done that yet, but we have come a long way. He gets credit for some of that, along with the dedicated doctors and visionary scientists whose groundbreaking work he helped fund. For a zany borscht belt comedian, that’s a long way to travel in a single visit to our planet.
Jerry took some heat for exploiting MDA patients in his depiction of their challenges. I never saw that. I saw a man devoted to curing a terrible, debilitating condition. He was a master of the stage, there is no question about that, but in the end I don’t believe the telethon was about him. It was about lending his name and global stardom to a cause that mattered. He didn’t have to do that. It was a choice. Of course it would come with some critique. He was pioneering new ground and taking creative risks that had no precedent. He might have said a few things wrong or missed the mark on occasion with a photo opportunity, but I believe he was committed to healing. He was a brave soul paving the way for a generation of viewers who learned how to turn their time into public service.
I learned a lot from Jerry and working with MDA. I learned how to work steadily through 36 hours of production from set-up to wrap. It’s hard to fathom what that meant in this age of digital media and 24-hour everything. Opportunities like that let you bond with strangers with enormous intensity that is over as quickly as it begins, yet can last a lifetime. Sometimes in the overnight hours, when I saw on the schedule board that our stage was about to go empty, I would gather some of the MDA kids and we would practice a few songs together, a Beatles tune or a Bob Dylan folk song. When the TV audience was at its smallest the producer would put us on the air. I played guitar and we would sing together in a half circle looking straight into the red light of the live camera.
The first time this happened was my first time on live TV. We were directly in front of the phone banks around 3:00 a.m. with maybe 100 people in the auditorium fighting sleepiness. I probably messed up some of the chords but the kids sang right over me. You forgot they were in wheelchairs. They were just kids singing like they were at a campfire. Afterward the kids asked me if Jerry would have been pleased with our performance. I took a chance and told them I thought he would. Today I know that for certain. They were Jerry’s Kids forever.
Jerry Lewis was an imperfect person as we all are, but he was an inspiration to me. He had no roadmap, no rule book, just a whole bunch of harebrained ideas and a ton of influence he put to work for something that mattered. He was dedicated, hard-working, wildly hard-minded about details, and a perfectionist. He gave of himself. He always made me laugh. Well, maybe not always, but most of the time. He was very funny, but of another time. I will never forget him. He was an original. Labor Day will always be his.
Jerry, dear Jerry, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”