For six decades, Labor Day meant an American tradition: the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. MDA ended its association with Lewis in 2010, although the telethon continued in ever-shorter form until its final broadcast in 2014. But the association of Labor Day with helping the MDA continues. Some local areas still host telethons, and firefighters across America are out this holiday weekend at intersections, collecting cash for their “Fill the Boot” drive. If you see them, I hope you’ll dig into your pocket and give generously.
And the national organization this year is bringing back the Telethon in a new “COVID-19/Zoom”-friendly way. You can learn more and donate directly at their website: https://www.mda.org/telethon
Although Jerry Lewis passed away a few years ago at 91, active right up until the end, I’m sure that he would want you to continue giving generously and remember that it’s about helping the kids. In fact, while Jerry made the telethon the success that it became, he wasn’t the one who started it all rolling. He gave credit for sparking his six-decade mission to wipe out muscular dystrophy to another man -- a man you’ve probably never heard of. Jerry kept the story secret for many years, until the publication of his memoir, “Jerry Lewis in Person.”
Jerry recalled that it was in 1948. He was 22, and he and Dean Martin were the hottest comedy team in show business. His good friend and press agent, Jack Keller, had helped make them stars, but never requested a single thing for himself -- until one day, he came to Jerry and begged a favor. He had a friend who was in trouble and asked if Jerry would talk to him. His name was Paul Cohen. He’d had MD since childhood, and he’d started a group called the Muscular Dystrophy Association to fight it. They had a few patients, their parents and nothing much else.
By chance, Jerry knew someone whose nephew had had MD. He said he’d watched helplessly as that child had withered like a leaf in the winter, and the effect of seeing that would never leave his mind until a cure was found. So he agreed to meet with the handful of doctors who knew anything about MD at the time. They weren’t encouraging. They warned him that research was in the Dark Ages. Nobody even knew what caused MD, and no known medicines helped. It was like fighting an invisible killer. But that just made Jerry more determined to take it on.
He and Dean began hosting fundraisers…until one night, Jerry jokingly ad-libbed at the end of their TV show that viewers should each send in two dollars. He was stunned when over $2,000 arrived in the mail. And that’s when it hit him: the power of television to raise money for charity. So in 1951, Jack Keller put together a special hosted by Dean and Jerry. It aired on just one station and raised $68,000 (over $671,000 in today’s dollars), and the MDA telethon was off and running.
Over the next six decades, Jerry Lewis’ tireless work on his Labor Day telethons helped raised well over a billion dollars to fight neuromuscular diseases and help the victims and their families. He also inspired millions of Americans to join in the effort. That’s why so many Americans will always associate him with Labor Day.
But let’s also salute an unsung hero. If you think one person can’t make a difference, remember that the Labor Day tradition that raised over a billion dollars to help children with MD started because a man you’d never heard of, Jack Keller…for the first time in his life…asked someone for a favor. And as Jerry observed, it was no surprise to him that the favor was a request to help someone else.
So when you see a firefighter out collecting for MDA, doing his or her bit to help the kids, please do your bit and toss something into the boot. You'd be amazed how all those individual efforts add up.