Brian Matuszak column: For Brian, Labor Day weekend will always mean Jerry LewisSo it’s Labor Day Weekend, which, in my house growing up, meant it was a full-fledged Jerry Lewis Weekend.
So it’s Labor Day Weekend, which, in my house growing up, meant it was a full-fledged Jerry Lewis Weekend. Yup, I’m a telethon junkie. Well, I used to be a telethon junkie. Some higher-ups in the Muscular Dystrophy Association decided to remove Jerry from the equation and so I haven’t really watched for awhile.
Of course, obliterating muscular dystrophy is still a worthy battle to fight, and I know that the MDA will one day make good on its pledge to do that; you can’t find any fault with that objective at all. But from a pure entertainment standpoint, Jerry Lewis can’t be, and hasn’t been, replaced.
On Sunday night at
7 p.m., we’d turn on Channel 10 and the TV set wouldn’t click off until 5 p.m. the next day. Mom and Dad would let my brother, sister, and me stay up all night long and watch Jerry Lewis, an already manic comedian, desperately try to raise money for 22 straight hours by wheedling, mugging, and running around pantsless.
Best of all, these madcap antics were being broadcast live from the entertainment capital of the world, Las Vegas.
For an innocent young boy raised in the quiet, faraway woods of Saginaw, Minnesota, it was magical.
And the telethon wasn’t just Jerry; he was joined by several of his show business buddies, all of them biggies from the world of ’70s entertainment: Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Fred Travalena, the Hudson Brothers, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and even Frank Sinatra would make an occasional appearance. We were able to experience the energy and excitement of Las Vegas without having to leave the blanket fort in our living room.
Periodically, the entertainment was interrupted as Ed McMahon asked for a timpani drum roll, and the new number of dollars raised would be revealed on Jerry’s giant tote board. It was so compelling to see that number slowly crawl upwards throughout the night. Would Jerry be able to get his “one dollar more” this year? You had to keep watching to find out!
On Labor Day, when the telethon was almost over and that tally was in doubt, Jerry would finally call out the big Las Vegas gun: Mr. Wayne Newton. Wayne would tear into “Danke Shoen,” the numbers on the tote board would fly sky-high, and the final result would always, ALWAYS, be just a tiny bit more than the previous year’s total.
But there was still one more bit of show business left before the telethon was complete.
Jerry would slowly make his way center stage, dragging a stool behind him, and he’d plop down onto it, spent. Over the past 22 hours, he had given us every bit of entertainment magic in his arsenal, and for one more year, it was enough. He’d look at the tote board, start to cry, sing an off-key but beautiful rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and then leave us for another year.
It was amazing television.
At the end of the national broadcast, there would always be about
30 minutes left to fill, so Channel 10 would come in and finish up with local updates. There has been a parade of local hosts over the years, from Bill Stefl and Peggy Chisholm, to Ken Chapin and Cassie Limpert. They all did fine work, but they were obviously no Jerry Lewis.
One summer, I hoped to meet Jerry so I hosted my own MDA carnival.
I set it up in the metal pole barn next to the small tavern my folks owned. A few neighborhood kids rode their bikes in and played some ring toss but it wasn’t enough. I went into the bar to see if anyone wanted to have me guess their weight or toss a bean bag around, but they just gave me money to go away, which worked for me. I raised about fifty bucks and my folks brought me up to WDIO on Observation Hill during the live broadcast on Labor Day so I could turn it in.
Unfortunately, I didn’t even get to meet Bill or Peggy, let alone Jerry, so
I just tossed my money into a big fishbowl and went home. But it was still pretty special. In a tiny way, I had helped Jerry raise some cash to help out some kids who had much bigger battles than I did, and that
Over the years, the telethon’s impact seems to have diminished, and that’s too bad. MDA’s mission is still important but the telethon seems like an afterthought. I don’t even know if it’s still around, to tell you the truth. But my memories of it are still here,
and I treasure them.
Almost as much as I treasure a pantsless, manic Jerry Lewis.
Brian Matuszak is the co-founder of Renegade Comedy Theatre, founder of Rubber Chicken Theater, and invites you to follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rchickentheater or like him on Facebook at “Rubber Chicken Theater.” And if you know of anyone holding a carnival for MDA, he’s available for dunk tanks.