Just two weeks before Labor Day, when most people remember watching Jerry Lewis host the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) telethon, the legendary comedian died on Sunday. He was 91.
From the first telethon, which raised $1 million, to the last one in 2014 that raised $60 million, the Newark, N.J. native helped raise more than $2 billion for the charity combating the neuromuscular disease.
“What Jerry did for our cause is immeasurable – he stood head and shoulders above any other celebrity associated with a specific cause to make sure the world new about muscular dystrophy and the children and adults who live with it,” MDA’s board Chairman R. Rodney Howell, M.D., said in a statement. “His relentless determination and commitment to find a cure for neuromuscular disease has profoundly affected the lives of millions of families. We salute him, forge ahead to realize his vision, and honor his memory in gratitude for his extraordinary accomplishments and gifts to MDA,” he said.
In its heyday, the telethon featured a slew of stars from music, television, film and sports to raise money for “Jerry’s kids.” The telethon started in 1966, broadcast on a single New York City television station, and by Lewis’ final telethon appearance as host in 2010 was broadcast on more than 200 stations through MDA’s “Love Network.” Lewis reconciled with his former comedy partner, Dean Martin, during the 1976 telethon, with help from Frank Sinatra.
The legendary entertainer became associated with MDA in 1952, shortly after the organization was formed by adults with muscular dystrophy, parents of children with the disease and the late Dr. Ade T. Milhorat, then virtually the only American physician specializing in muscle diseases.
In the early 1950s, Lewis and Martin, held telethons broadcast in New York for MDA. The children with neuromuscular diseases that Lewis met during numerous personal appearances for MDA began to call themselves “Jerry’s kids.”
The telethon, which at one point was a 21 1/2-hour extravaganza of performances and appearances by MDA beneficiaries, raised some $60 million annually for MDA, accounting for much of the charity’s annual revenue. Lewis would end each telethon with the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
In the final years of the telethon, the now Chicago, Ill.-based MDA experimented with different formats, including the addition of online auctions, multiple co-hosts, and varying durations of a primetime benefit, ranging from two to six hours. The final telethon aired in 2014.
“MDA would not be the organization it is today if it were not for Jerry’s tireless efforts on behalf of ‘his kids,’” said Howell. “His enthusiasm for finding cures for neuromuscular disease was matched only by his unyielding commitment to see the fight through to the end,” he said.
Lewis’ efforts on the annual MDA Telethon transformed the broadcast into an American tradition each Labor Day weekend for 45 years, Howell said.
“Though we will miss him beyond measure, we suspect that somewhere in heaven, he’s already urging the angels to give ‘just one dollar more for my kids.’ Thank you Jerry, you are our hero.”
The telethon was not without controversy. In 2011, MDA announced that Lewis would host his final telethon but then just weeks before that year’s event it was announced that Lewis would not appear. The telethon also at times was criticized for how it portrayed those afflicted with the disease.
In January 2016, MDA unveiled a revitalized brand reflecting what it called a “renewed commitment to accelerate treatments and cures for the kids, adults and families it serves.” The announcement included a recorded message from Lewis.
Lewis received numerous humanitarian awards and honorary degrees. He was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1991. In December 1996, Lewis and MDA were recognized by the American Medical Association with Lifetime Achievement Awards “for significant and lasting contributions to the health and welfare of humanity.”
In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized Lewis with one of its greatest honors, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The award, named after actor, past Academy president and motion picture industry supporter Jean Hersholt, is bestowed on an individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.
Lewis is survived by his wife, Sam; his daughter, Danielle; five sons, Gary, Ronald, Scott, Christopher and Anthony; several grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and was preceded in death by his son, Joseph.