Labor Day 2011 is not the same without Jerry Lewis' telethon | Movies | -- Your State. Your News.

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Labor Day 2011 is not the same without Jerry Lewis' telethon

lewisJerry090111_optBY ERIC MODEL

Labor Day is almost upon us. End of summer, back to school, and yes, hurricane season. While hunkered down as Irene approached, we also had time to contemplate other rites of Labor Day – such as baseball pennant races (not much as it appears that most playoff spots have already been decided), the US Open (when it was staged at Forest Hills) and Jerry Lewis.

Though he is no longer hosting the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s telethon, Jerry Lewis is in our thoughts these days. Much like Guy Lombardo on New Years’ Eve, Bert Parks with the Miss America Pageant, or Mel Allen on World Series radio and TV broadcasts, Jerry Lewis will always be inextricably connected to Labor Day based on his longtime role as spokesperson, fundraiser and cheerleader for Muscular Dystrophy

Lewis, 85 had been the M.D.A.’s national chairman since the early 1940’s, and hosted the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon since 1966. Lewis, upon announcing his retirement in May said that he planned to make his final appearance on this year’s September 4 show and planned to serve as M.D.A.’s national chairman.

But in early August, M.D.A. Chairman of the Board R. Rodney Howell said in a statement that Lewis “will not be appearing on the telethon”.

That brief statement ends a run that started in 1966 when Lewis’ first live Labor Day weekend telethon was broadcast on a New York station. It raised more than $1 million in pledges.

The telethon moved from New York to Las Vegas in 1973 and had a run in Los Angeles before returning to Las Vegas in 2006.

Last year it was broadcast by more than 170 stations. It raised almost $59 million to fund research to find a cure for M.S. and A.L.S. (Lou Gehrig’s Disease)

The live telethon usually ran 21 ½ hours. In it Lewis would sing, tell stories/jokes, and introduce stars. But most affectively, he cajoled viewers and urged them to contribute – mainly by speaking of or talking to folks afflicted by the disease. Through it all, he kept all eyes on the tote board ringing up pledge totals.

All this from a Jersey boy.

Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch (some sources say Jerome Levitch) in Newark. His father, Daniel (Danny) Levitch, was a vaudeville entertainer. His mother, Rachel ("Rae") Levitch (née Brodsky), was a piano player WOR radio in New York. She also made musical arrangements, and was her husband's musical director.

Lewis started performing at age five with his parents in the Catskills. At the young age of 15, he had already developed his "Record Act," in which he mimed out songs. Initially, he went by Joey Lewis but decided to change his name to "Jerry" to avoid confusion with comedian Joe E. Lewis and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. He graduated from Irvington High School.

Jerry Lewis first met Dean Martin in 1945, and before long became Martin and Lewis. In fact, Martin and Lewis debuted in New Jersey. It was at Atlantic City’s 500 Club in 1946. From there they went on to play nightclubs and television shows and make a series of comedy films. In their time they were as popular as anyone.

But then they split and each pursued separate successful careers. It would not be until 1976, during a telethon, that Lewis would be reunited by Frank Sinatra with Dean Martin, some 20 years after their acrimonious split.

In all, after a lengthy and distinguished career that included 50 movies, and an Oscar for lifetime humanitarian service, Lewis and his early years in the Garden State have not been forgotten.

He is considered a favorite son of Irvington and is still recalled by some for his days there.

On one online bulletin board recalling old theaters in Irvington, one poster wrote:

“My father says he used to see live shows there (Chacellor Theater) in the late 40’s and eray 50’s./...One of the stars of the show was a young Jerry Lewis...” (

Don Stroch remembers Jerry Lewis as well. On an online blog , he recalls having gone to the same school (Don was in 1st Grade while Jerry was in 8th Grade), and recalls Lewis as as a soda jerk at Gerstein’s Drug store on the corner of Chancellor Avenue and Union Avenue (Storch worked there too).

Storch also describes how once, after Lewis and Dean Martin became stars, they pulled up in Irvington, “in Lewis’ blue Cadillac convertible to the front of Gerstein’s Drug Store hopped out without opening a door while throngs of fans jammed the soda fountain and he started taking orders, sending sundaes, milkshakes and black and white ice cream sodas sailing down the counter. Mr. Gerstein’s voice bellowed from the pharmacy section, ‘Jerry, you’re going to pay for all of this.’ And he did.”

Storch’s blog also movingly tells a powerful story. After locking himself in a cloak room in the back of a grammar school classroom at Union Avenue School in Irvington, New Jersey, Jerry Lewis was told by school principal, Miss Bettz, that he wouldn’t "amount to anything" in life.

That Jerry Lewis is so associated with Labor Day shows how wrong Ms. Bettz was (not even counting Martin and Lewis, the movies and more). Personally, we will always remember Jerry Lewis as a harbinger of fall – this Labor Day icon who made the most of his skills - shortcomings and all - and in the process unarguably made the world a better place for it all.

They’ll be staging a telethon this Labor Day weekend. They’ll probably raise a good amount of change too. But somehow it will be different.

Comments (7)
7 Thursday, 08 September 2011 16:39
William Voelker
Well another Labor Day has come and gone, it just wasn't the same. Staying up late into the night watching Jerry on TV. Wether or not I saw the whole Telethon the TV was always on so I could see the updates of how much the show made for Jerry's Kids and even though Jerry was not on the Telethon they will always be Jerry's Kids. I'm glad that everyone supported the telethon as before and I hope that all will continue to support it in the future. But it will not be the same without Jerry's face and laughter. To me it will always be the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon.
6 Monday, 05 September 2011 08:51
jeanne pena
So sad to hear that if Jerry isn't hosting you won't give a dime. Love you jerry but my son as many others have md give a dime if you give a -----
5 Sunday, 04 September 2011 18:36
Sue R from NH
I would hate to see anyone not donate to MDA because Jerry is no longer hosting the telethon. I am 53 yrs of age and have loved and adored and laughed and cried with Jerry for as long as I can remember. His movies still make me laugh even though I have seen all of them numerous times. And as many Americans I am going through tough times financially and physically. So on my not so good days I know I can turn on one of his movies and laugh and forget about my troubles. And while watching the telethon I remember that compared to some I have it pretty damn good. For those of you who are contemplating not donating because Jerry cannot be front and center, well shame on you. For those of you who have had the privelage of having Jerry entertain you for years, like myself, the best thing you can do to honor him is continue to support MDA. I have very little money , but as always I will give whatever I can, knowing there is someone who needs it more than me! If Jerry and or his family/ supporters, if you read these... God Bless you and thank you for all you have given myself and others over the years. And especially God Bless Jerry's kids!!!
4 Sunday, 04 September 2011 18:12
That's not fair to comment you wouldn't give a dime to Jerry's Kids. I'm sure Jerry wants to stop because of his age and before he would have to step down due to declining health. We all want him to live to be 100 but only Jerry Lewis knows what's best for him. How would society handle it if he got taken from us to be with God before the next telethon? We would have to get over it. Don't judge. I'm sure the founder Jerry Lewis had a lot to say in the matter. We'll all miss him very much and hopefully he'll be able to give an appearance at the close of the show. Remember Jerry's wishes. Fight for his kids to
end MD!
3 Sunday, 04 September 2011 17:36
Lisa F.
Sad to see Jerry isn't hosting anymore, and even sadder to know there might have been a riff between he and the association, but I will still donate. We shouldn't let this affect the people living with this disease.
2 Sunday, 04 September 2011 16:03
Susan Subotich
Karen - I agree with you. It is a shame the way they did Jerry. Miss you Jerry already.....
1 Sunday, 04 September 2011 13:37
Karen Lippmann
Since Jerry is no longer on my family an I will not contribute a dime anymore!! We misss you Jerry Lewis!

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