My watch list  

Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon

The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon is hosted by Jerry Lewis to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. It has been held annually since 1966. The telethon has raised $1.46 billion by 2007.[1]

It is held on Labor Day weekend, starting on the Sunday evening preceding Labor Day and continuing until late Monday afternoon, syndicated to approximately 190 television stations throughout the United States. MDA calls its network of participating stations The Love Network. The Telethon has originated from Las Vegas for 23 of the 40 years it has aired.



Jerry Lewis began hosting telethons to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Associations of America in 1952 after a plea from a staff member who worked on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis' editions of the Colgate Comedy Hour. The modern-day telethon first originated from the Americana Hotel in New York City in 1954, as a local telethon seen exclusively on WNEW-TV. After Lewis conducted many 4 hour shows in the NY area to benefit the organization, the idea of a big Telethon came about. The organization (MDAA) approached Lewis to host the big event and he agreed. Permissions had to be gotten so the organizers of the telethon chose Labor Day weekend as it was the only time available to hold a telethon. However, many people thought that the event would fail, as many people are out of town on Labor Day weekend. Even New York City officials were skeptical that it would succeed, as they were reluctant to issue them a fund-raising permit. Nevertheless, the first telethon, which was 19 hours in length, was so successful, that Lewis had to paint a "1" on the 6-digit tote board when the final tote reached $1,002,114. The show repeated its success in 1967 raising $1,126,846.

Jerry Lewis anchored the entire 22-hour broadcast from its inception until 1983 - when he rested for a few hours offstage after having a heart attack the year before. Lewis still continued to host at least 16 hours of his telethon until 1999 when he would appear for the first five hours and the last five hours of the telecast, allowing others to co-host. That year Liews had suffered medical issues as well. The trend of taking a break in the evening was started in 1985 by Ed McMahon, Lewis' long-time co-host, who is a few years older than Jerry. Co-hosts have included talk show host Larry King, comedians Norm Crosby, Elaine Boosler, Bob Zany, TV personalities Chad Everett, Jann Carl, Leeza Gibbons, John Tesh, veteran singers Tony Orlando, Julius LaRosa (who began co-hosting for Jerry in remote locations since 1975), Sammy Davis Jr., and many others.

In 1968, after word of mouth of the success and stars appearing on the show, the Love Network was created when four other stations picked up the telethon -- WHEC-TV in Rochester, WGR in Buffalo, WTEV in Providence and WKBG in Boston. However, they met some opposition from the Theater Authority, an organization that represented theatrical-related labor unions, in which their permission is required before the representing talent can perform without charge. that year permission was granted for talent to appear on the small telethon "network". The addition of the other stations helped raise the total to $1,401,876.

While they originally intended for the entire telethon to be seen, with the obligatory local pauses for station identification, WHEC chose to break in a few minutes every hour to show local volunteers in Rochester taking calls, and, as a result, WHEC had higher proceeds than the other Love Network stations. This is how the local cutaway was born. From here on, every Telethon had cutaways and other Telethon events used this formula as well.

By 1970, the telethon was seen nationwide on 64 stations; that year's edition was also the first coast-to-coast telethon, when it added Los Angeles to its station roster. It was also the year the Theater Authority lifted its ban on nationwide telethons. Proceeds this year came to $5,093,385. The show continued to gain popularity and huge stars throughout the next 2 years.

Then, in 1973, with 150 Love Network stations in tow, the telethon moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where it originated at the Sahara Hotel. It was also the year the telethon broke the $10 million mark, with its final tote being $12,395,973. However, the tote board, which was operated on a solari board, only had seven digits, so Jerry repeated his 1966 stunt of painting the "1" on the left after Ed came yelling off stage saying "I have a brush, and I have some paint...". The following year, an additional solari number flipper was added to the existing seven numbers.

In 1976, the Love Network grew to 213 stations; it was also the year of the reunion of Jerry and his former partner, Dean Martin, which was arranged by a frequent telethon guest, Frank Sinatra.

During the telethon's Las Vegas years in the 1970s and 1980s, the show originated at the Sahara until 1982 when it moved to a bigger space at Caesar's Palace. The show continued there until 1989 when it originated from the Cashman Center in Las Vegas - the first and only time it was transmitted from a non-hotel.

In 1990, the telethon originated from CBS Television City in Los Angeles, then returned to Las Vegas until 1995 when it moved again to Southern California, to the CBS studios for 9 years and then in 2005 to Beverly Hills.

In 1998, MDA's successful all star landmark show became the first to be broadcast on the Internet by RealNetworks on the association's website. After the telethon, the site features a special highlights reel of the telethon for that year.

The telethon returned to Las Vegas in 2006 at the South Coast, which was renamed the South Point. It has remained there since then.

Station coverage and pre-emptions

In recent years, more Love Network stations over the years have opted not to show the entire telethon, opting to join the show in progress after the 11PM/10PM local news, or even on Labor Day morning, after the network morning shows, while some break from the coverage during the afternoon to show sports, such as CBS' coverage of the U.S. Open.

One of these stations is Chicago's WGN-TV, which, since the 1970s, pre-empted the afternoon segment of the telethon for Chicago Cubs or Chicago White Sox baseball. In another case, some use a sister station affiliated with either The CW, MyNetworkTV or an independent to show the telethon start, and/or air the station's network programming while the telethon station continues to air the telethon; this is the case with CBS affiliate WDJT in Milwaukee and its independent sister station WMLW-CA, which in 2007 aired the first four hours of the telethon during CBS prime time, then aired U.S. Open coverage on Labor Day to allow WDJT to carry the telethon. In Pittsburgh, WPXI carried the telethon, while sending NBC's coverage of the Deutsche Bank Championship golf tournament to independent station WBGN-LP[2].

Theme songs

  • Since the show's inception, its theme has been Smile, a song from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film, Modern Times.
  • The telethon's toteboard theme song is Burt Bacharach's What The World Needs Now Is Love, played by the orchestra. It was used from 1970 through 1989 in different versions. At the show's 25th Anniversary in 1990, it wasn't used, but returned for the 1991 edition back in Las Vegas. In 1992, to give the show a fresh effect, the song was replaced by various orchestral fanfares, but it returned in 1996 at Lewis' request; it remained the tote theme since then.
  • The song Jerry Lewis sings at the end of the telethon, You'll Never Walk Alone, was originally from the musical, Carousel. According to Jerry at the end of the 2007 telethon, the song was suggested to Jerry in 1964 by a disabled child, walking with a cane. The song was suggested to Jerry as a song that would specifically represent disabled children.


Through the 1980s, there were also Canadian Love Network affiliates, whose telethon presentations there benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Canada, an organization unrelated to the American MDA, but used Jerry's US telethon for fund raising. The telethon also helped launch a new station -- in Winnipeg, Manitoba, CKND-TV's first program on August 31, 1975 was Jerry's telethon.[3]

Today, no Canadian station airs the telethon, though it is available on cable and satellite from WGN, as well as from border US stations. As of 2007, Muscular Dystrophy Canada continued to operate pledge call centers during the telethon to collect Canadian donations.[4] The corporate donation segments still occasionally mention their Canadian donors, and WGN's telethon includes a number for Canadians to call to make a pledge, 1-800-567-CURE, which connects to the pledge center in Toronto.[5] Most border stations would also show either the local pledge number for the Canadian portion of their viewing area, or the national Canadian number.

The final Canadian-based local broadcasts of the telethon aired from Ottawa in 2001. After this, MDC officials canceled the local broadcasts claiming cost savings. The Ottawa broadcasts were first hosted by CFRA radio's Ken Grant, who expressed concern that there would be fewer donations due to the loss of local broadcast features. Ottawa's telethon broadcasts were conducted for 31 years, most of which originated from the Skyline Hotel (later known as the Citadel Inn).[6]

Hurricanes Frances and Katrina

Telethon tote board pledges for 2004 were down nearly 2%, to $59,398,915 (from $60,505,234 in 2003). Hurricane Frances had struck through most of the Florida peninsula late on September 5th, during the telethon, significantly reducing pledges from the southeast United States. As many Florida stations devoted their air-time to coverage of Hurricane Frances, most Love Network stations in Florida cancelled the local segments of the telethon and either showed only parts of the telethon, moved the telethon to a digital subchannel, or not show the telethon at all. On a Saturday afternoon in early December 2004, some Florida Love Network stations showed a special three-hour telethon, as a way to recoup some of the lost pledges.[citation needed]

Telethon pledges were down another 7.5%, to $54,921,586 in 2005 due to significant Hurricane Katrina disaster relief efforts in New Orleans and throughout the region. That year, Jerry and his guests urged telethon viewers to also give donations to The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross. The MDA itself donated $1 million to The Salvation Army for hurricane relief efforts.

Prior to the hurricane-effected results of 2004 and 2005, the only other time the telethon raised less than the previous year was in 1982 ($28,400,000), during the recession of the early 1980s.[citation needed] However the next year - 1983, the Telethon succeeded again in raising more money than it's previous year and by 1984 was back to it's record breaking pace.

In 2006, the final tote board tally was $61,013,855 as 5 major regional stations knocked out during previous telecast came back online. It was the first time since 2003 that the telethon raised more money than the previous year.

In 2007, the telethon again raised more than any previous year, closing the show with tote board pledges totaling $63,759,478.

Ten year "tote board" results

Year Final tote board Percent change
1997 $50,475,055 -
1998 $51,577,023 +2.2%
1999 $53,116,417 +2.7%
2000 $54,610,289 +2.8%
2001 $56,780,603 +4.0%
2002 $58,276,118 +2.6%
2003 $60,505,234 +3.8%
2004 $59,398,915 (-1.8)%
2005 $54,921,586 (-7.5)%
2006 $61,013,855 +11.1%
2007 $63,759,478 +4.5%


  • Game show announcer Johnny Olson was the telethon's announcer for the first five years, 1966 to 1970.
  • Elgin Watches was the sponsor of the telethon's toteboard as the "Official Timekeeper of the Telethon" in the late-1960s and early-1970s, at least during the telethon's New York years. [1] From the mid-1970s to the early-1980s, Helbros was the toteboard sponsor.
  • The telethon's toteboards varied from year to year; in the 1970s it was operated on a Solari-board, consisting of seven (later eight) number flippers using a white background and black numbers. Instead of using blank numbers, all flippers began with "00000000". This tote board was discontinued after 1989 and replaced with a new tote board, first operated with the "eggcrate" display common on game shows, then later to an LCD-type "vane" display. By 2003, the tote board was changed to a screen display often used on Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!.
  • In 1980, regardless of a a strike by AFTRA and SAG stars continued to appear - with that Telethon having more than 85 performers.
  • Jerry Lewis was also the host of the first edition of the French Téléthon in 1987, which benefits the muscular dystrophy charity in France, L'Association française contre les myopathies. Jerry also co-hosted the 1991 edition. The French MD telethon is generally televised on France 2 on the first weekend in December, with the 2006 edition taking in €101,472,581 (US$136,389,286) in pledges.
  • Today, of the charter affiliates of the Love Network, WHEC-TV and the present-day WGRZ and WLNE still carry the telethon.
    • What is now WLVI-TV (the former WKBG) has since dropped the event, which has since moved to WCVB-TV.
    • Today's WNYW (the former WNEW) dropped the telethon after 1986, which moved to WWOR-TV in 1987. Ironically, both WNYW and WWOR are now under the common ownership of the Fox Television Stations Group.


  1. ^ "Jerry Lewis' telethon hits new record ",;_ylt=Ao1XfRQ68IxzK3im.jxfSUZxFb8C, AP, September 3, 2007, accessed September 4, 2007
  2. ^ Owen, Rob (August 31, 2007). WPXI gears up for telethon; WTAE debuts new set. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved on 2007-09-04.
  3. ^ Dulmage, Bill (January 2007). Television Station History:CKND. Canadian Communications Foundation. Retrieved on 2007-09-02.
  4. ^ 42nd Annual Jerry Lewis Labour Day Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy Canada (MDC). Muscular Dystrophy Canada (13 August 2007). Retrieved on 2007-09-02.
  5. ^ 42nd Annual Jerry Lewis Labour Day Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy Canada (MDC). Muscular Dystrophy Canada (13 August 2007). Retrieved on 2007-09-02.
  6. ^ "Ottawa dropped from Lewis telethon: End of 31-year Labor Day tradition marks change in format, 'better use of funds'", Ottawa Citizen, 23 August 2002, p. F1. 

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Jerry_Lewis_MDA_Telethon". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE