Jerry Lewis and the MDA Telethon: A Metaphor for Modern American Society

jerry-lewisSo, here we are, September 2nd, Labor Day, 2013…and there is a huge gap in today’s television programming.

For 45 years, American families would, while spending time together, watch the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon. The telethon would begin on Sunday Evening and continue for 21 1/2 hours, ending on Monday evening at 5:00 p.m. Central. Co-hosted in later years by Ed McMahon and Norm Crosby, stars of stage, screen, and television would appear, alongside corporate executives, all there to raise money for “Jerry’s Kids”.

And, when I say “stars”, I mean STARS.

Jerry’s good friend, Sammy Davis, Jr. would come on every year, on Monday afternoon, and do a solid 30 minutes of entertaining., usually badgering Jerry, until he would come out and do a couple of songs with him, usually ending in a tap dance “challenge”.

Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton, would come on after that and bring down the house, with several high energy numbers, wearing his huge American Eagle Belt Buckle, and “TCB” Necklace, which Elvis Presley gave him as a sign of friendship and respect.

Speaking of the King, while Elvis did not appear live every year, usually, also sometime Monday Afternoon, Ed McMahon would say,

Jerry, we just received a call from Graceland.

Which meant that Elvis. known thoughout my hometown of Memphis for his great generosity, had just phoned in a huge donation.

Perhaps, one of the most poignant moments in the history of the telethon came when  the Chairman of the Board, Francis Albert Sinatra, showed up, Frank told Jerry that he had brought a friend with him and asked him to come out. That friend was Jerry’s ex-partner, Dean Martin. The two had been estranged for years. Jerry became emotional. He hugged Dino, and, when everyone became silent, he asked,

So, you been working?

2 years ago, after 45 years of magnanimous service, raising untold millions for the MDA, the 85 year old Lewis was cruelly and unceremoniously dumped. In fact, the MDA did not even have the guts to tell Jerry Lewis that they dumped him!

Last year, Before the 2012 MDA Program, posted this report about the results of the 2011 trimmed-down “telethon”,

The 2011 telethon, shrunk to six hours from 21, was ghastly. When it was over MDA trumpeted that they’d made $61 million– up 4 percent from the prior year when Lewis was at the helm. MDA boasted it did better without Jerry.

Alas, it wasn’t true. MDA has just posted its 2011 federal tax form 990 on its website and this tells a much different story. MDA was only able to collect $31 million of that much publicized amount. Without Jerry Lewis to cajole or persuade or inveigle, exactly half the amount came in that was promised by the public. Whether people simply reneged, or never actually pledged that amount at all, remains to be seen.

MDA will argue this happens every year: the tote board total is never what actually comes in. But in 2010, MDA crowed about $58 million at the end of the telethon with Jerry; $48 million came in. In 2009, the first telethon after the recession, the shortfall was about $15 million–$60 million announced, $45 million arrived.

For last year, MDA lists gross receipts from the first non Jerry Lewis telethon at $30,683,816. The charitable contribution portion was 18,059,876 . This left a gross income of $12,623,940.

A 50% shortfall is unprecedented. Because of it, the Form 990 shows a running $30 million loss or more in all categories stated on the MDA return from the beginning of 2011 to the end. Net assets and fund balances seem severely depleted.

And public support dropped overall, not just with the Telethon. In 2010, MDA claimed it received over $174 million in gifts and grants (including the telethon). In 2011, there was a big drop: the number was only $157 million.

Even more disturbing: revenue less expenses left MDA in the red for 2011 at $19 million.

MDA’s now deposed CEO, the man who got rid of Lewis, Gerald C. Weinberg, still pulled down his nearly $400K a year salary in 2011, which he’d been making fo years. The top staff at MDA all make decent six figure salaries as well. Weinberg and most of that staff are no longer working at MDA.

To be fair: MDA divides up the millions that do come in to dozens of worthy hospitals, universities, research programs, and facilities. The halved $61 million is still a sizeable chunk for these donation-starved groups. However: without the bad publicity and the controversy around Jerry Lewis, MDA might have been able to collect a higher percentage of pledges which would have benefited these groups even more.

Something happened at MDA in 2011 that’s never quite been explained. They committed a kind of hari-kari, taking an established brand and flushing it down the toilet. On Sunday night, the so-called remnants of the annual telethon are down to three hours. Almost everything is pre-taped except for local cut ins. The acts have no relationship to the history of the MDA.

Because it’s taped, there will be no drama to see if they can top last year. Of course, last year doesn’t really exist since the actually collected $31 million is far below the amounts from preceding years.

In 2012, the MDA Program was renamed the “MDA Show of Strength”. It was scaled down to a 3 hour program, featuring mostly pre-taped segments.

This year’s program, was once again referred to as a “telethon”. However, it was only a 2 hour program featuring Ryan Seacrest introducing pre-taped segments.

After MDA gave Lewis the Fickle Finger of Fate, they continued to insist

We honor Jerry Lewis, we admire the work he’s done for us, and we respect his decision to retire.

That particular quote came from Valerie Cwik, the MDA’s interim president, at the time. She replaced Gerald Weinberg, who was reportedly behind Lewis’s ouster and who stepped down as president, after 54 years with the organization.

She made the lame argument that the changes in the telethon were 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. A 21.5-hour show doesn’t fit in a 140-character world.

Okay. I know that Lewis had a reputation as an ego-maniacal pain-in-the-rear to work with, but, these were people’s lives that the MDA was messing with. It could have, and should have, been handled differently.

It showed no respect whatsoever.

What happened to Jerry Lewis, seems to be happening to American Society in general.

This lack of respect seems to be an epidemic in this country. In the workplace, I have noticed that there sure does seem to be a lot of 20-somethings who have no respect whatsoever for decorum, their co-workers, or authority.

Now, I may just be a 54 year old fuddy-duddy Cracka, but I have no desire to see your brand new shoulder tattoo in the business office, ladies…nor your neck tattoo with Pookie’s name on it, young Skillet.

And, when older folks in your place of business try to tell you how the world works, kiddies, you had better listen to us. We’re trying to help.

This is real life. You’re not playing “World of Warcraft” or “Final Fantasy”. People’s families depend on their paycheck. And, when you do not “pull your weight” at your job, you affect everyone’s incomes.

As the MDA is learning the hard way, the “young and culturally hip” are usually not as reliable as the “experienced and professional”.

Of course, as it always has been…some folks have to learn things the hard way.

Until He Comes,


15 thoughts on “Jerry Lewis and the MDA Telethon: A Metaphor for Modern American Society

  1. the way the MDA got rid of Jerry put a bad taste in my mouth. I donated to the MDA every year and now have stopped due to the actions of those so called leaders of the MDA


  2. I have watched MDA since I was a little girl, and now I am 41. I am appalled at what they did to Jerry Lewis!!!! I also used to donate every year and now I don’t. We need Jerry Lewis back to raise money for those beautiful people that have muscular dystrophy!!!!Jerry Lewis made the telethon!!!!!


  3. Is there another organization which raises money for those suffering from MD? I don’t think those who benefitted from the Jerry Lewis telethons should suffer the loss of those donations because of the ignorance of the leadership of the MDA.
    Also, here is a comedy routine by one of Jerry Lewis’ closest friends who passed away two years ago. Funny stuff:


  4. I used to donate every year,MDA made the largest mistake by getting rid of Mr.Lewis,the true backbone of MDA, I will never donate another penny to them. He is a star,and most likely the biggest pain in the ass but his work for HIS KIDS can never be questioned!!!!!


  5. Jerry Lewis was the heart of the MDA Telethons for 45 years! It’s outrageous to remove him from the telethon in such a way. I’m 48 years of age and I’ve watched the telethon (as well as his movies) since I was 3. I hope he knows how much he is loved by his fans, the MD patients whom he has helped over the years and everyone who knows him personally. You will always be in our hearts, Jerry Lewis! God bless you.


  6. Jerry is a caring person and his kids had milestones because of his love and support for 45 years. Yes, Jerry wrangled, fought, and sincerely thanked his supporters on behalf of his kids for every penny donated. I am in awe of his dedication and was appalled learning about Jerry being let go. Bottom line his kids will suffer and Jerry would not want that to happen. You cannot cut the show down to 2 hours and expect to have record breakers, that is an insane thought! MDA needs to figure this out, apologize to Jerry and to rebuild their public backing. Economy has some effect but every penny counts! Jerry hats off to you and god bless you and your family.


  7. As usual the big wigs at MDA have gone the way that everyone else has. Clothes brands, music and even telethons. They all seem to think that screaming, tattooed, shabbily dressed artist will appeal to everyone. There was class on the old telethon that these people wouldn’t recognise if bit them in the rear. It is no longer about the kids as much as the corporate office. The telethon will be history because ratings will suffer and so will Jerry’ s kids. Just remember what they say about karma! I figure about a nickel out of every dollar goes to actually help “Jerry’s Kids” anyway so I will no longer donate to someone’s yearly bonus.




  9. Lets be Honest MDA Sucks without Jerry he is 87 years young I saw him in person about 10 years ago . He is a great Guy I know a few people who worked with him. I am sure that they wanted more money for their CEOs and are very cold cruel business people THE MDA will never be the same without Jerry I would never ever donate or watch. Jerry Lewis worked so hard and also very hard to maintain the integrity of this organization. They have lost money without Jerry.


  10. I never cared for Jerry Lewis as an entertainer but I admired his efforts with the charity. Shame on them for treating him with so much lack-of respect.

    Not just because of this, but because I now understand more about these things, I now spend more time investigating where to send my contributions. Some organizations do a much better job of getting the funds to the hurting people than others do. Also, CEO salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, with cars and perks galore, are reprehensible.


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