Jerry Lewis and the MDA Telethon: A Metaphor for Modern American Society 2015

jerry-lewisSo, here we are, September 7th, Labor Day, 2015…and there is a huge gap in today’s television programming.

In what has become a metaphor for Modern American Society, a Labor Day Tradition of almost 50 years, has been tossed aside, having been deemed to have “outlived its usefulness”, shortly following the disrespectful and dishonorable discarding of its creator.

For 45 years, American families would, while spending time together, watch the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon. The telethon would begin on Sunday Evening and continue for 21 1/2 hours, ending on Monday evening at 5:00 p.m. Central. Co-hosted in later years by Ed McMahon and Norm Crosby, stars of stage, screen, and television would appear, alongside corporate executives, all there to raise money for “Jerry’s Kids”.

And, when I say “stars”, I mean STARS.

Jerry’s good friend, Sammy Davis, Jr. would come on every year, on Monday afternoon, and do a solid 30 minutes of entertaining., usually badgering Jerry, until he would come out and do a couple of songs with him, usually ending in a tap dance “challenge”.

Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton, would come on after that and bring down the house, with several high energy numbers, wearing his huge American Eagle Belt Buckle, and “TCB” Necklace, which Elvis Presley gave him as a sign of friendship and respect.

Speaking of the King, while Elvis did not appear live every year, usually, also sometime Monday Afternoon, Ed McMahon would say,

Jerry, we just received a call from Graceland.

Which meant that Elvis. known throughout my hometown of Memphis for his great generosity, had just phoned in a huge donation.

Perhaps, one of the most poignant moments in the history of the telethon came when  the Chairman of the Board, Francis Albert Sinatra, showed up. Frank told Jerry that he had brought a friend with him and asked him to come out. That friend was Jerry’s ex-partner, Dean Martin. The two had been estranged for years. Jerry became emotional. He hugged Dino, and, when everyone became silent, he asked,

So, you been working?

4 years ago, after 45 years of magnanimous service, raising untold millions for the MDA, the 85 year old Lewis was cruelly and unceremoniously dumped. In fact, the MDA did not even have the guts to tell Jerry Lewis that they dumped him!

In 2013, before the 2012 MDA Program, showbiz411.com posted this report about the results of the 201 trimmed-down “telethon”,

The 2011 telethon, shrunk to six hours from 21, was ghastly. When it was over MDA trumpeted that they’d made $61 million– up 4 percent from the prior year when Lewis was at the helm. MDA boasted it did better without Jerry.

Alas, it wasn’t true. MDA has just posted its 2011 federal tax form 990 on its website and this tells a much different story. MDA was only able to collect $31 million of that much publicized amount. Without Jerry Lewis to cajole or persuade or inveigle, exactly half the amount came in that was promised by the public. Whether people simply reneged, or never actually pledged that amount at all, remains to be seen.

MDA will argue this happens every year: the tote board total is never what actually comes in. But in 2010, MDA crowed about $58 million at the end of the telethon with Jerry; $48 million came in. In 2009, the first telethon after the recession, the shortfall was about $15 million–$60 million announced, $45 million arrived.

For last year, MDA lists gross receipts from the first non Jerry Lewis telethon at $30,683,816. The charitable contribution portion was 18,059,876 . This left a gross income of $12,623,940.

A 50% shortfall is unprecedented. Because of it, the Form 990 shows a running $30 million loss or more in all categories stated on the MDA return from the beginning of 2011 to the end. Net assets and fund balances seem severely depleted.

And public support dropped overall, not just with the Telethon. In 2010, MDA claimed it received over $174 million in gifts and grants (including the telethon). In 2011, there was a big drop: the number was only $157 million.

Even more disturbing: revenue less expenses left MDA in the red for 2011 at $19 million.

MDA’s now deposed CEO, the man who got rid of Lewis, Gerald C. Weinberg, still pulled down his nearly $400K a year salary in 2011, which he’d been making fo years. The top staff at MDA all make decent six figure salaries as well. Weinberg and most of that staff are no longer working at MDA.

To be fair: MDA divides up the millions that do come in to dozens of worthy hospitals, universities, research programs, and facilities. The halved $61 million is still a sizeable chunk for these donation-starved groups. However: without the bad publicity and the controversy around Jerry Lewis, MDA might have been able to collect a higher percentage of pledges which would have benefited these groups even more.

Something happened at MDA in 2011 that’s never quite been explained. They committed a kind of hari-kari, taking an established brand and flushing it down the toilet. On Sunday night, the so-called remnants of the annual telethon are down to three hours. Almost everything is pre-taped except for local cut ins. The acts have no relationship to the history of the MDA.

Because it’s taped, there will be no drama to see if they can top last year. Of course, last year doesn’t really exist since the actually collected $31 million is far below the amounts from preceding years.

In 2012, the MDA Program was renamed the “MDA Show of Strength”. It was scaled down to a 3 hour program, featuring mostly pre-taped segments.

This past May, the Muscular Dystrophy Association sent out the following Press Release:

MDA, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, today announced that the new realities of television viewing and philanthropic giving have made this the right time for the organization to move beyond its historic Labor Day telethon. It will discontinue production of a broadcast telethon effective this year.

Julie Rhoad, mom of two boys with muscular dystrophy, speaks from her heart to the 2008 Telethon audience about the tough challenges faced by MDA families. Host Jerry Lewis offers emotional support.

MDA plans to invest more in digital and mobile channels for consumer engagement and activation. The organization will continue to share the inspirational stories of MDA families on Labor Day and throughout the year via digital channels as part of an emerging year-round plan to revitalize its brand, connect with donors more frequently, strengthen family support, and attract and recognize sponsors in new ways.

“The decision to end our beloved telethon was not made lightly,” said MDA President and CEO Steven M. Derks. “In the last few years, the show was adjusted to reflect changes in viewership and donor patterns, and last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge once again affirmed for us that today’s families, donors and sponsors are looking to us for new, creative and organic ways to support our mission.”

The first telethon aired in 1956 and has attracted America’s most famous celebrities over the years, none more prominent than the legendary Jerry Lewis, who emceed the event through 2010. For decades, the telethon was instrumental in raising awareness and donations to save and improve the lives of kids and adults fighting muscular dystrophy, ALS and other life-threatening diseases that severely limit muscle strength and mobility.

Frank Sinatra orchestrated one of the most surprising and touching moments in television history when he reunited estranged partners Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on the 1976 Telethon.

MDA will transition from the television-based telethon, most recently named the “MDA Show of Strength Telethon,” to personal shows of strength, building on its rich tradition around consumer activation and compelling stories that inspire, entertain, and most importantly, incite urgent action.

“We have ambitious plans to leverage our history, the compelling stories of our families and our record of innovation — just like we did decades ago when we introduced the telethon and cause-marketing for nonprofit organizations — as we continue to use creative ways to connect with supporters and deliver more value for our sponsors, never forgetting the families who are at the very heart of our mission,” Derks said.

After MDA gave Lewis the Fickle Finger of Fate, they continued to insist

We honor Jerry Lewis, we admire the work he’s done for us, and we respect his decision to retire.

That particular quote came from Valerie Cwik, the MDA’s interim president, at the time. She replaced Gerald Weinberg, who was reportedly behind Lewis’s ouster and who stepped down as president, after 54 years with the organization.

She made the lame argument that the changes in the telethon were part of a necessary evolution in fundraising strategy, to put less emphasis on the once-a-year event.

It has to change because the American audience has changed. A 21.5-hour show doesn’t fit in a 140-character world.

I swear, “The Smartest People in the Room”. a.k.a., Modern American Liberals, screw up everything.

Okay. I know that Lewis had a reputation as an ego-maniacal pain-in-the-rear to work with, but, these were people’s lives that the MDA was messing with. It could have, and should have, been handled differently.

However, Jerry Lewis also devoted over half his life for “his kids”, visiting them in hospitals around the nation, with no cameras around, and calling and visiting Corporate CEOs and A-List Celebrities, getting them to help him raise money for those kids and adults struck down by these debilitating Muscular Disorders.

It showed no respect whatsoever.

What happened to Jerry Lewis, seems to be happening to American Society in general.

This lack of respect seems to be an epidemic in this country. In the workplace, I have noticed that there sure does seem to be a lot of  “millennials” who have no respect whatsoever for decorum, their co-workers, or authority.

Now, I may just be a 56 year old fuddy-duddy Cracka, but I have no desire to see your brand new shoulder tattoo in the business office, ladies…nor your neck tattoo with Pookie’s name on it, young Skillet.

And, when older folks in your place of business try to tell you how the world works, kiddies, you had better listen to us. We’re trying to help.

This is real life. You’re not playing “World of Warcraft” or “Final Fantasy”. People’s families depend on their paycheck. And, when you do not “pull your weight” at your job, you affect everyone’s incomes.

As the MDA learned the hard way, the “young and culturally hip” are usually not as reliable as the “experienced and professional”.

Of course, as it always has been…some folks have to learn things the hard way.

And, that’s when they find out that they are not as smart as they think they are.

Until He Comes,

KJ

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