Jerry Lewis is 90 today. In an interview published yesterday, he calls it a “monster number.”
He was already one the top comics and part of one of the top nightclub and movie duos (Martin & Lewis) when he and Dean Martin decided to add philanthropy to the act. His annual television extravaganza on behalf of MDA raised more than $2.5 billion for medical research over the course of four and a half decades.
He is one of the oddest of our great movie comics: so vulnerable and yet super-sensitive to being called vulnerable, as a kid from a tough neighborhood would be, that he masks it by being always “ON,” always ludicrous, always a step beyond silly. Which makes his characters yet more vulnerable. Here is a glimpse:
For years, when someone used the word “telethon,” if they didn’t specify otherwise, it meant the MDA Labor Day telethon. The “Jerry Lewis” telethon. MDA raised many millions for research towards treatments and possible cures for the many different diseases that make up the muscular dystrophy syndrome. For most, muscular dystrophy is a disease that prevents children from ever walking; for some, it is less severe, but no less frightening as it takes mobility away from adults who once could walk freely.
I did not know that back when I was a show-biz-addicted kid who tried to watch the telethon around the clock that I was watching a fundraiser for an organization fighting for those suffering a disease that would affect me personally. I did not know that I already had muscular dystrophy hard at work in me. Perhaps I had a premonition.
Probably not, but Jerry Lewis did something remarkable with his schmaltzy annual show: he led me and millions of others to care about a disease that he did not even do a particularly good job explaining. It took receiving a diagnosis, spinal muscular atrophy, and then reading about it and then realizing that most if not all of the articles I was reading about my disease were often from the MDA website for me to finally realize that I have the adult version of the most common and terrible muscular dystrophy, SMA, a disease that keeps children in wheelchairs for their entire lives.
Jerry Lewis stopped hosting after the 2010 show and last year was the first with out the telethon at all. But I miss and I will miss the 23-and-a-half-hour-long slog from tuxedo-wearing singers to tie-loosening comics to Jerry yelling “tympani!” to the tote board showing ever bigger dollar amounts.
The disease has not been cured, of course. The telethon, that one day event each year, raised more than $2 billion over the 59 events held from 1956 till 2014. That is amazing. But fundraising for medical research is a 24/7/365 proposition now. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge raised $100 million in only one month for MDA in 2014 and even more in 2015. That is 1/20th of what 59 telethons had raised, but in a sliver of the time.
Efficiencies of scale improve many things, none of them to do with having a heart. And Jerry Lewis, so “sincere” he was slick, so slick he was awkward, such a big-hearted entertainer he needed to know that you knew it, too, really had funny, owned funny, was funny.
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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel “The Scarlet Letter” was published by Ticknor and Fields on this date in 1850.
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Robert H. Goddard launched his first liquid-fueled rocket 90 years ago today.
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Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for U.S. President on this date in 1968.
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Governor Thomas E. Dewey died 45 years ago today.
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Henny Youngman was born 110 years ago today. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was born on this date in 1927.
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Bernardo Bertolucci is 76 today. Chuck Woolery is 75 today. Jerry Jeff Walker, who wrote “Mr. Bojangles” and “Stoney” (a song about a former professor of mine, Dr. Harry Stoneback), is 74 today. “Stoney,” about Harry Stoneback:
Erik Estrada is 67. Victor Garber, who I once accidentally insulted, is 67. This column from last year is my apology to him: “Almost, Famous?” Kate Nelligan is 66. Nancy Wilson is 62. Flavor Flav is 57.
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