Labor Day is a holiday dedicated to the the incalculable sacrifices and contributions of the American worker over this country’s history. At one time for many it was also a weekend of great charitable awareness and accomplishment in the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon – an event like perhaps no other before or since. It still holds a special place in the hearts and minds of millions.
While Lewis (with Dean Martin) held a live MDA telethon in 1956 at Carnegie Hall just prior to the comedy team’s breakup, the very first show that would form the model of things to come was broadcast in 1966 on WNEW, an independent New York TV station, raising $1.1 million dollars. By 1968, a family of stations known as The Love Network began broadcasting Lewis’ stations – a network that would grow to more than 200 stations by the mid-1970s.
That is probably around the time that I first noticed and started watching. I was captivated. Here was one of my all-time favorite comedians on-the-air for hours and hours not to make people laugh (not all the time anyway) but think beyond themselves, count their blessings and help those in need. At that time, our local CBS television station in Champaign, Illinois aired every minute of the telethon, starting around 10:30 p.m. eastern on Sunday night and continuing non-stop until Monday evening at 5:00 p.m. In the early years, Lewis was present throughout, without sleep but with unlimited resolve.
And he wasn’t alone. There, one after another, were the biggest stars of the day – movie and television and music legends when celebrities were rarely seen outside of the tabloids and the occasional talk or variety show such as The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Here, they were not promoting a new movie or record, rather, they were all unified and dedicated to assisting those suffering from muscular dystrophy. For a young middle schooler, it was all very powerful. Emotional. Including the pomp and circumstance of Ed McMahon and that magical rising tote board and Lewis tearing up as he sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at the telethon’s conclusion. He did that for 44 years.
It was perhaps the first time for me and my friends that we thought long and hard about charity and being charitable. My mom had always implored me to say to myself about those less fortunate: “If there but for the grace of God go I.” Now, we could go out and raise money door to door for a special cause, “Jerry’s kids,” delivering our pennies and quarters to the local TV station. We would carry on similar missions throughout school, including October’s annual Unicef drive with the little “Trick or Treat for Unicef” coin boxes. I would later spend my junior high lunches with special needs children in their classroom.
Yes, Labor Day is about labor – including its historical trials and triumphs that have made this country a better place. It will also always be, for me and countless others of my generation, a day that we truly saw charity in action and a country coming together toward a wonderful selfless and common cause. That is something truly special and far too rare in our world today.