My life changed a little this past Labor Day weekend – for the first time in my lifetime, there was no Jerry Lewis. After half a century of being a staple of Americana the first Monday of September, Jerry’s desk was empty. Still in only 6 hours, they raised a record amount of money and it begs a lot of questions: Was it time for Jerry to go? Would they have done better had Jerry been there?
Who knows? Regardless, there were people like me who chose not to watch or participate. We feel like we were cheated. Not for missing out on Jerry, let’s face it, in the past decade watching him come out every year frailer than the previous was difficult. Many of us asked how much longer he would have the strength to carry on such a demanding event when his health was obviously an issue. Jerry himself knew his time was closing and announced a few weeks ago that 2011 would be his last telethon. But immediately after Jerry’s announcement, without any reason (at least I haven’t heard one yet), the MDA announced that not only would Jerry not be participating in this year’s telethon, but he was no longer associated with the MDA in any official capacity. We were cheated because someone we (generations of ‘we’) had grown to love and accept into our homes was suddenly taken from us, and not by death.
He was fired.
Tradition around my house was we would be there for every minute of the telethon. As far back as I can remember, my brother Scott and I would sit in the glow of the Zenith watching a cavalcade of stars old and young, tearful interviews of children fighting a battle none of us have the nads to take on, and an endless parade of corporate spokespeople and their gigantic checks. In the middle of all of it, the one constant, there was Jerry.
As a kid, I loved watching Jerry the clown, amazed at how he could keep going for over twenty-four hours. As an adult, I loved watching Jerry, the passionate champion for those who will always be known as ‘Jerry’s Kids.’ As a broadcaster, I was fortunate to be invited to participate in local broadcasts of the MDA Telethon in Ohio and Florida. Just my few moments each hour was exhausting enough. The thought of anchoring such an enormous broadcast for someone old enough to be my father, was astounding to me.
The years of watching the MDA Telethon left images in my mind that will never leave: I remember watching John Lennon and Yoko One appear on the telethon in the middle of the night, I remember the countless acrobats, ventriloquists, jugglers and magicians perform as the phone number for ‘Jerry’s Kids’ scrolled across the bottom of the screen. I remember Sinatra reuniting Dean and Jerry.
Labor Day WAS the MDA Telethon and the MDA Telethon WAS Jerry Lewis. I understand things happen and I have experienced less-than-ceremonious splits and much like my personal professional break-up (on a much grander scale) this break-up left us with a lot of questions.
So, I am asking for some answers. Your telethon is over, you made your money and you’ve proven you can do it without Jerry. Good for you. But before you move on to the next press opportunity, tell me why you had to fire the clown in such an ugly, faceless and unceremonious fashion. Why could you not allow him one last bow, one last opportunity to assure us that we will “Never Walk Alone”?
Tell me why. Don’t do it for me, do it for the little boy who sat in the dark in front of the TV for decades with his big brother. Don’t do it for me, one who will probably never contribute another dime to your association ever again. Do it for the little kid who walked up and down the streets of Huntington Beach California, endlessly pestering neighbors, strangers and friends for all of their spare change ‘for Jerry,’ and then convincing his brother to drive him all the way up to Los Angeles to deliver it in person. Do it for a broadcaster who couldn’t stop the tears from welling while trying to read dedications to children who passed, families who remember those taken, someone who just wanted to be part of the telethon. JERRY’S telethon.
And to Jerry Lewis, I simply say ‘thank you’ for being an inspiration and a childhood hero. I hope you enjoy your remaining Labor Days and I hope you never forget the thousands, millions of lives you have touched.