Here is what you need to know about the MDA telethon:
1. Lewis Hosted the Telethon for Decades
Lewis was the first host of the telethon, which first aired in 1956 as a Thanksgiving Party. That year, he co-hosted the event, held at Carnegie Hall, alongside Dean Martin, according to USA Today. Lewis became the organization’s National chairman, serving as host of the telethon. He was the National Chairman for 55 years.
Beginning in 1966, the telethon was moved to Labor Day Weekend. It would begin airing on Sunday and would run overnight, ending on Monday (Labor Day).
2. Lewis Last Hosted the MDA Telethon in 2010 & His Departure Is Said to Have Been Bitter
In 2012, Lewis was asked about the telethon and why he left, but he refused to talk about it.
“That’s not a place I want to go. Because if I go there, you’ll never get me back. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it. But I have already ingested all that I want from that whole f—ing adventure,” he told Richard Zoglin at Time Magazine.
The MDA’s interim president, Valerie Cwik, explained that running the telethon just wasn’t practical in the 21st century. She added that it was Lewis who chose to retire.
“We honor Jerry Lewis, we admire the work he’s done for us, and we respect his decision to retire. “It has to change because the American audience has changed. A 21.5-hour show doesn’t fit in a 140-character world,” Cwik said.
In 2015, MDA President Steven M. Derks confirmed that the telethon would no longer air. At the time, Lewis was asked about the organization’s decision.
“They do what they have to do and I respect that. After 61 years we raised 2.6 billion dollars. I feel pretty satisfied about the 61 years of constant looking to make children better,” he told Fox411, still not giving away too many details of why MDA decided to drop him as their telethon host.
3. The Telethon Raised Money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association
Since its inception in 1966, the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day telethon has raised a reported $2.45 billion dollars to fund research to “free individuals — and the families who love them — from the harm of muscular dystrophy, ALS and related muscle-debilitating diseases.”
According to Mental Floss, Lewis’ perennial goal was to raise at least “one dollar more” than the previous year’s efforts. Additionally, year after year, the largest single contributions have come from the International Association of Fire Fighters, which has donated in excess of $250,000. The IAFF is famous for its “Fill the Boot” campaign, in which fire fighters take to the streets to solicit cash donations from passersby.
At some point, Mental Floss reports, Lewis was accused of taking some of the funds donated through the telethon, a charge the noted funny man and philanthropist vehemently denied. Contrary to the accusation, Lewis claimed to have donated $7 million of his own money toward the cause.
Following Lewis’ departure from the telethon, MDA was able to raise $61.5 million in its first year without the legendary entertainer at the helm, which was more money that its final year with Lewis, according to TIME.
4. Dean Martin & Lewis Reunited on the 1976 Telethon, Organized by Their Mutual Friend, Frank Sinatra
Lewis was joined by his legendary straight man, Dean Martin, in 1946, to form the celebrated comedy duo, Martin and Lewis.
“When producer Hal Wallis saw them performing at the Copacabana and at Slapsie Maxie’s in Hollywood, he saw the potential for a new Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and signed them to a Paramount Pictures contract.”
The duo spent a decade of laughs together until splitting in 1956. As Lewis’ performances garnered increasingly more attention than those of his partner, outside pressures led to a strained working relationship.
Both Lewis and Martin went on to successful solo careers and made occasional public appearances together for five years until 1961; the duo were not seen in each other’s company for another 15 years until mutual friend Frank Sinatra set things in motion.
“Listen,” Sinatra told Lewis during the 1976 telethon, “I have a friend who loves what you do every year and who just wanted to come out. Will you send my friend out please?”
The audience erupted at the sight of Lewis’s long-time partner and the Martin and Lewis shared a hug as part of an emotional reunion.
You can see the Martin and Lewis reunion below.
5. After Lewis Left the Program, the Show Was Run as a ‘Television Special’ & Aired for Just a Couple of Hours
Following Lewis’ departure, the Muscular Dystrophy Association tried to keep things going in a different way. Rather than run a telethon for 21+ hours, the organization decided to reformat, holding a sort of benefit concert featuring some of the biggest names in the business.
In 2011, the show aired for 6 hours and was co-hosted by Nigel Lythgoe, Jann Carol, Alison Sweeney, and Nancy O’Dell.
In 2012, the show was titled MDA Show of Strength and the special aired for three hours during primetime. In 2013, the show was only two hours long. The final show took place on August 31, 2014.