Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Last Bow for the Clown?

I must have not been paying attention, or had been sidetracked by work, so I missed the news that Jerry Lewis had been ousted as the host of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, held each Labor Day weekend. He has hosted the event since 1966, and has raised countless millions of dollars for that very worthy cause. It seems wrong that he has basically received the television version of a pink slip.
As a child, probably starting with the very first telethon, I watched that thing. I know I was the one in our family who always insisted that we call and make the donation each year. I would dial the number on the phone while we were watching, wait for the operator to take our information, and then I would proudly say the amount of our donation, which was always ten dollars (hey, it was a different time) and wait for the operator to say thank you.
I would stay up all weekend watching that thing. I’d delight when an obscure performer would play something great at three AM, and I’d feel like it was played just for me. I was thrilled when Dean Martin and Jerry resolved their differences and had their big reunion on the telethon. I wouldn’t understand until many years later the rather sleazy undercurrents that ran in the Vegas entertainment world back then, the Rat Pack mentality and all that grown up stuff. I was a kid, and I got to watch a lot of top-notch (I thought) entertainment and all I had to do, or wanted to do, was make a little donation and sit back with my popcorn and snacks and enjoy it.
Then I started to get older, and my family fell apart. I still watched the telethon, even videotaped some of it, or rigged audio cassette players to record people I liked. Then gradually my interest faded away completely until I no longer watched at all. By the time I was 25, I was done.
Not so Jerry Lewis. Like a bunny on a battery commercial, every Labor Day Jerry would be out there, hustling, working it, getting those donations, making practically every year better than the one before. He seemed ageless. I’d see the news clips sometimes, when he would be singing his song, tears running down his face. I’d hear the jokes about how he was a national treasure in France, but a joke here. I’d hear the awful quips that some comedians made about “Jerry’s Kids” and I would never find them funny. How could I? I was too involved emotionally. A respect and a love for a guy who puts it all out there for the good of others doesn’t fade easily, if at all.
So now, it seems, the clown has made his last bow. In a world where athletes get to do a farewell tour of sorts after they announce they are retiring, after reaping the millions of dollars that fans pay them to hit a ball or something similar, it seems patently unfair and unjust to just dump a guy who has done so much for this world. Say what you will about his movies, or the era that spawned him. Hell, say what you will about France. The only thing I want to hear about Jerry is that he will be coming back for one last song. If he does, you know where I will be this Labor Day weekend.


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  2. I had to re-post, please pardon ~ Wow, that was news to me about Jerry until reading your blog just now. (Hmmm, Where I have I been?) I'm sure, if his health is relatively intact, we'll see him again Jim. He's definitely been a pioneer beacon of generosity philanthropy via TV and phone media all these years. Really enjoyed with interest reading your experiences and memories of his telethon in the earlier years.

    We happened to have loved his silly movies and antics in my childhood too. My only ONE disappointment was while in Paris in the early 70's. My siblings and I met Jerry Lewis in Paris one morning at our Hotel... he quite bluntly stated to us in french that he would never speak English there. We got in our little conversation w/him anyway, (an autograph too) as we switched over to french without skipping a beat. He actually smiled.
    We found out later he was known for detesting Americans while traveling abroad. Maybe one too many a tacky question or Hawaiian shirt w/swinging camera for his minds eye to fathom while away from home.
    I do hope to see him on that tube again too.

  3. Hawaiians might resent that, lol. When I was a kid, Jerry's picture (a caricature) was featured on the sgn for Brown's Hotel in South Fallsburg, NY, in Sullivan County, the heart of the Borscht Belt, where he got his start. I have no idea if it is still there, but my dad used to work at the prison nearby and later I delivered produce to Monticello and Liberty so i always went past it. Thanks for sharing your cool memories. I have heard he could be a bit of a prick, but hey, we all have our moments.