Walsh's Wonderings — A labor of love
The recent passing of Jerry Lewis hit home over the weekend. As we cobble together money and supplies for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, it’s fitting to remember the man who introduced the concept of televised crowdsourcing to generations of families every September.
My formative years were spent huddled around the TV set for two days each year to watch The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. I didn’t know Mr. Lewis through the genius he displayed as part of the legendary comedy team of Martin & Lewis. I wasn’t aware of his impressive resume as a writer, director and producer of cutting-edge films he made later in his career. I simply knew him as the goofy ringmaster of that 21-hour variety show that helped so many people with muscular dystrophy.
Coming as it did at the end of summer, the telethon was our last opportunity to stay up late before school started. My six brothers and sisters would join me in bringing down our pillows and blankets to camp around the family room television. We’d eat popcorn and endure the old-timey acts (who was this Sammy Davis Jr. person? Why did this Frank Sinatra person get so much stage time?) until the big guns like Superman’s Christopher Reeve or the Go-Go’s came on.
I never truly understood what unions were, why people put money in boots or why the Shriners wore those funny hats, but I found myself applauding them all each time they gave Jerry those oversized checks. We’d suffer through the affiliate break-ins hosted by local celebrities, often taking catnaps or bathroom breaks until Jerry returned. We’d sit on the edge of our seats as Jerry kicked it over to co-host Ed McMahon and the tote board drumroll, imagining how many lives each set of advancing numbers would be saving.
For generations of kids like me, Jerry’s yearly telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) was our first meaningful attempt at charitable giving. I still remember pooling money together with my brothers and sisters and phoning in our donation during the wee hours of the morning. We’d wait breathlessly for our names to appear in the scroll at the bottom of the screen, secure in the knowledge that we’d done our part for the year. Any remaining savings could now be spent on Girl Scout cookies.
By 6 o’clock on Monday evening, we’d cheer in bleary-eyed abandon as the final tote showed they’d bested last year’s contributions. By the time Jerry got through his rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” we were as exhausted and teary as he was.
I was too young to appreciate the sheer audacity of this noble undertaking. Imagine trying to convince today’s network executives to air 21 straight hours of a charitable appeal during a holiday weekend, much less allowing that show to be aired on multiple networks at the same time. We couldn’t pull this off with Beyonce boxing Taylor Swift as Cristiano Ronaldo refereed.
It’s been said that Jerry could be a curmudgeon, but he also taught millions of us the importance of helping one another in times of crisis. For those who are suffering, whether from physical challenges or the effects of Hurricane Harvey, “Walk on, with hope in your heart, and you'll never walk alone.”
Thank you, Mr. Lewis. Godspeed, and may you walk happily amongst all those you’ve helped in your time with us.