Jerry Lewis Making Last Telethon Appearance

May 17, 2011       Mark Hrywna      

Jerry Lewis, the face of the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s (MDA) annual Labor Day telethon for a generation, says this year’s broadcast will be his last as host.

The 85-year-old, who will remain as MDA’s national chairman, said in a statement through MDA that he will perform his signature song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” in his final appearance this year.

Who will replace Lewis, who hosted his first Labor Day telethon in 1966, remains to be seen. A team of co-hosts again will appear this year — including Nancy O’Dell, Jan Carl, Alison Sweeney and Nigel Lythgoe. MDA Spokesman Jim Brown said MDA expects the team approach to work very well with the telethon’s new, primetime, six-hour format. He stressed that MDA evaluates the show every year to refine and fine tune it and they’ll be keeping a careful eye on the new format, as well.

“It’s time for an all new telethon era. This year’s six-hour prime-time telethon on Sept. 4 will be spectacular, and I’m thrilled to be part of it,” Lewis said in announcing his retirement. “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,” he said.

The telethon accounts for about a third of the MDA’s total revenue each year. The Tucson, Ariz.-based nonprofit had total revenues of $179.3 million in Fiscal Year 2010, the most recent year data were available.

The telethons have raised more than $1 billion over the years to find a cure for muscular dystrophy and ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and a national network of 200 hospital-affiliated clinics have opened since Lewis became involved with the event, said MDA Spokesman Jim Brown. The first telethon in 1966 was broadcast live from New York and raised $1 million. Last year’s broadcast was seen on more than 170 stations. The broadcast moved to Las Vegas in 1973, as well as Los Angeles for a time, before going back to Las Vegas five years ago.

“We’ve found over time that when Jerry is singing that song, we see a crescendo in giving,” Brown said. “We expect that to be case this year,” he said.

Lewis has been national chairman since the early 1950s and Brown described him as a “tireless champion” who will remain an integral part of MDA. “You will see him in communication materials, from our websites to appeals because he has helped us galvanize tremendous response for families,” he said.

The shortened telethon will be faster paced with shorter segments that will still highlight research efforts, showcase families living with the disease, and sponsor presentations. The shorter format is also important for participating television stations, Brown said, which previously would have to pre-empt 21 hours of normal programming. “It’s easier thing to execute for station, and promote it,” he said. Instead of 15-minute live local cutaways, Brown said 7-minute and 8-minute cutaways will be incorporated into each hour.

“We really are looking at the new format very optimistically and we expect the greatest outcome,” said Brown, and any future fine tuning and changes will be announced after this year’s show.

“It took us several years to make the decision to go to the shorter format. We were very deliberate and conscious of relationships with our key partners. Our sponsors are as enthusiastic about this change as we are,” he said. “I think people will see things they loved about the telethon, but view it with a new energy and really a new era,” said Brown.

“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 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,” said MDA President & CEO Gerald C. Weinberg. “We’re deeply honored that Jerry Lewis will continue as MDA’s national chairman and we’re profoundly grateful for everything he has done and is doing for the association,” he said.