It’s been years since we first wrote about how the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association had gone to seed. Since then, MDA officials have fired Lewis altogether, cut the show to only a few hours, and stubbed out whatever fading bits of cultural relevance it had managed to retain in an era vastly different from the one in which it was born. As recently as the 90s, Jerry’s corporate sponsors would spend all summer and millions of dollars advertising the telethon in conjunction with their products, raising awareness and expectations. Once that support dried up, so did the telethon’s cultural mojo, although the event continued to raise millions of dollars.
But every year on Labor Day weekend, we remember that mojo. Millions of us either held backyard carnivals for Jerry’s Kids, or thought about having one. We scraped up some money and put it in a donation box, or in a fireman’s boot somewhere. And we watched on and off over the holiday weekend to see people pushing themselves to the limit of endurance on live TV—not just Jerry Lewis, but the hosts of the local segments, too. One of the hosts in Madison, a news anchor, used to get entertainingly punchy by Monday afternoon, and we’d watch to see what absurd thing he might say or do.
In his heyday, Lewis was able to attract A-listers from Hollywood and Las Vegas, all beautiful cats doing a beautiful thing for the people. (Not so at the end, when the celebrities tended to be television stars from the B-list or below.) A couple of years ago at WNEW.com, I wrote about the 1972 telethon appearance by one of the most famous celebrity couples of all time: John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Part of that post is on the flip, slightly edited.
John and Yoko’s appearance on the telethon was even more anachronistic than the week they spent co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show earlier that year. Lennon biographer Jon Wiener calls it “the low point” of Lennon’s performing career, not so much for performing in the first place but for the setting: “Before and after John and Yoko appeared, Jerry Lewis went through his television shtick, making maudlin appeals for cash, alternately mugging and weeping . . . and generally claiming to be a friend of the sick.” Weiner speculates that John and Yoko were hoping to make a good impression on the federal immigration officials trying to deport them at the time. Yoko said on the air, “John and I love this country very much, and we’re very happy that we’re still here.” John went so far as to say, “Jerry is one of our favorite comedians.”
There are but two clips of the appearance available on YouTube, both frustratingly short. There’s 35 seconds of Lennon doing “Imagine” backed by the group Elephant’s Memory and sounding very good, and 19 seconds of John and Yoko riffing on “Give Peace a Chance.” There’s a YouTube video with the whole performance of “Give Peace a Chance,” but it’s audio only. An odd, sub-two-minute clip of Lewis thanking John and Yoko for their performance was released on The Beatles Anthology.
Lennon was not the only Beatle to appear on the telethon; in later years, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were on it, too. And a smorgasbord of other rockers has appeared since the telethon began in 1966, including the B-52, the Byrds, Blondie, the Charlie Daniels Band, Cheap Trick, Duran Duran, Heart, Billy Joel, Elton John, KISS, Led Zeppelin (really?), John Mellencamp, Queen, the Ramones, Todd Rundgren, Lynryd Skynyrd, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bill Wyman, and the Who.