NEW YORK -- Jerry Lewis is retiring after 45 years as host of the annual Muscular Dystrophy Assn. Labor Day weekend telethon, a move foreshadowed by the organization's announcement in October it planned to shorten and reformat the charity broadcast.
"It's time for an all-new telethon era," Lewis said in MDA's announcement May 16.
This column suggested that the way MDA glossed over Lewis, 85, in unveiling its plan to cut the extravaganza from 21 1/2 hours to six and no longer air live in much of the country raised concern about his future participation in the fundraiser he launch in 1966.
Although he would not comment for the column, Lewis called from Las Vegas later to clarify a point in it. Before last year's telethon, Lewis had raised eyebrows when he said something about wanting to smack some sense into Lindsay Lohan. In his call, he sought to make it clear he never apologized for the Lohan remark but would not discuss the central issue of what, if any role he would have in the telethon going forward.
The announcement May 16 finally answered that question.
"I'll be making my final appearance on the show this year by performing my signature song, 'You'll Never Walk Alone,'" Lewis said. "I'll continue to serve MDA as its national chairman as I've done since the early 1950s. I'll never desert MDA and my kids."
Last year's telethon ended with Lewis rallying to finish the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune that's been his fundraiser's traditional coda. He thanked the audience, said good night and walked away with the camera dramatically honing in on his empty seat and the microphone he had placed upon it. (See video above.) "I will be here as long as I breathe," Lewis had vowed on the air earlier in the program.
Gerald C. Weinberg, MDA's president and chief executive, said the organization is "profoundly grateful" to Lewis "for everything he has done and is doing," including continuing to serve as the group's national chairman.
"As MDA continues the growth Jerry Lewis has done so much to inspire, all of us who've been privileged to work beside him, and the hundreds of thousands throughout the world affected by the myriad of muscle diseases MDA battles, will acknowledge in our hearts forever the unrivaled role Jerry has played in our lives and the lives of all Americans," Weinberg said in a statement.
MDA has said it's streamlining the telethon and running it from 6 p.m. to midnight in all time zones in hopes of increasing the potential audience and revenue. With Lewis as host, the show is said to have raised around $2.5 billion for the cause over the decades, to say nothing of how much he has raised MDA's profile over the decades.
A catalyst in the decision to reformat the show was that the 2010 telethon, which has aired locally on Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co.'s WGN-Ch. 9 since 1979, generated $58.9 million in pledges, a $1.5 million decrease from 2009.
When the telethon made its debut, a show airing in the middle of the night was unusual. More recently, the wildly eclectic mix of acts and never knowing when Lewis might go off script was part of the draw for some viewers and helped make the show unique.
But the physical demands of the job, the effects of aging and health woes had reduced Lewis' contributions in recent years.
"This year's six hour prime-time telethon on Sept. 4th will be spectacular and I'm thrilled to be part of it," Lewis said. "We're so close to treatments that it's absolutely vital for everyone to tune in and make a generous donation. America has always found a way each year to give me that just one dollar more to help my kids."
Monday, May 16, 2011
Posted by BA Haller at 8:36 PM