Sunday, September 6, 2015

The end of an era: Muscular Dystrophy Telethon (1966-2014)

What started as a regional event in the 50's in New York became a national phenomenon by the end of the 60's, but reached an unfortunate end after last year.

Behind the clowning antics of Jerry Lewis laid the heart of a man who took up the cause of raising awareness of Muscular Dystrophy in its various forms. In 1966, after doing fund raising events for a number of years, and plugging said events in making appearances on shows like What's My Line?, Lewis launched the MDA Telethon in New York, where it aired on WNEW (now WNYW). 2 years later, the telethon went national in syndication, where it would remain until 2013. By that time, however, Lewis was gone, having been removed as national chairman and telethon host. While Lewis & the MDA never really offered a reason why, one can speculate that Lewis, in his advanced age, may have sunk his own ship with some disparaging remarks about two of his co-hosts for 2011, Nigel Lythgoe (So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol) and Allison Sweeney (Days of Our Lives, The Biggest Loser). Just connect the dots.

After it had been a nearly 24 hour marathon from 1966-2010, the MDA reduced the telethon's length in 2011 to six hours, airing in primetime in much of the country. They then sliced it in half the next year, and retitling the event, MDA Show of Strength. This approach reflected the new attitude of the MDA, particularly the people in charge taking aim at 21st century society. The Show of Strength, however, lasted just two more years, and moved to ABC in 2013, cut again, this time to 2 hours. MDA announced earlier this year that there would not be a Show of Strength this year or ever again. Instead, the organization will focus its energies in collecting donations online, taking its cues perhaps from the success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, initiated last year.

Locally, WRGB, which was a NBC, later CBS, affiliate as a member of the MDA Love Network, began producing a short-form special, Capital Region Cares, the last two years, to keep their interest in the telethons, despite the dissolution of the Love Network. As of press time, it doesn't appear as though this will continue this year, either.

The dissolution of the MDA telethon means there are no more annual events of this nature on a national scale. United Cerebral Palsy tried to be the winter answer, but their national appeal ended after a few years in the 80's. Locally, the Fox affiliate continues with a regional event every January for the Center for Disability Services, which widens the scope. Takes place a week before the Super Bowl.

And, so, all that is left are the memories, some of which can be found on YouTube, including this treasure from 1976:

Obviously, from a health standpoint, Jerry got the better of that deal.

Once upon a time, there were telethons for sickle cell anemia and arthritis, too, but they're gone. I can't speak for the rest of the country, but I haven't seen firemen with their collecting boots raising money. Couldn't that still continue on a regional level, even if MDA discontinued the telethons? What do you think?


magicdog said...

Even the MDA Telethons couldn't last forever.

Only Frank could have made that reunion possible! Jerry was truly speechless when Dino appeared! I had heard they stayed in touch more frequently after that - when Dino was dying (especially in the years following his son's death in a plane crash) Jerry said he called him daily.

I had heard part of the reason they broke up was Jerry's ego (and depending on whom you talk to, it's a big one), others say it was Jerry's reluctance to become "made" like Dino and Frank and the rest of the Rat Pack. I'll bet Peter Lawford would have been left in the cold if Jerry was there during those years.

hobbyfan said...

No, I don't think Lawford would've been cut from the Rat Pack. Not with his (eventual) ties to the Kennedy family. The pack would simply have expanded by 1 (Jerry).