Sunday, September 04, 2016

Memories of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon

I suppose one of the universal experiences for humans is associating memories of certain things with events in one's life.

It's unavoidable, I guess. Whether it is a song or a color or a fragrance, something triggers a memory.

It is probably less common for someone to recognize something like that at the time, but that is how it was for me when I was a child and it was Labor Day, as it is tomorrow, and Jerry Lewis' telethon for muscular dystrophy was on the air.

Labor Day was — and still is — the first holiday of the new school year. It was a special holiday for me for several reasons. For one, it was my last opportunity to enjoy the freedom of summer before being forced back into the classroom — and, believe me, until I reached high school, that was no fun because the schools in my hometown were always without air conditioning — and it was always hot when school resumed in Central Arkansas. I guess air conditioning was too expensive for the school district so I grew up trying to take notes on papers that were constantly being whipped around by the box fans our teachers set up in the classrooms to keep the air circulating.

Those fans didn't make the air cooler. They just moved it around.

Labor Day also meant that the start of the football season was near, and I have always loved football. Labor Day was usually a week or two before the start of the football season in those days. Now, of course, college football is wrapping up its first week of official play on Labor Day, and the NFL is only days away from its kickoff. Nevertheless, football was on my mind when Labor Day rolled around, and I was in that preseason mode when all things are still possible.

And Labor Day meant the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon. I thought it was cool because if I happened to wake up in the middle of the night (which I don't think I ever did on any of those Labor Day weekends of my childhood) I could get up from my bed, go to the living room and watch TV. Remember, this was in the days before cable and satellite TV, and local network affiliates ordinarily would sign off around midnight. You couldn't watch anything until the stations signed on again the next morning, probably around 5 or 6 a.m.

But on that Sunday night just before Labor Day you could watch the Jerry Lewis telethon at 3 a.m. if you wanted. It would be on for about 20 hours or so.

As a child, I often watched several hours of the telethon every Labor Day — nearly always during the daylight hours, my nocturnal fantasies notwithstanding — but I stopped long ago.

Periodically, maybe two or three times per hour, the telethon would break to permit local affiliates to give the telethon a local touch. I don't know what the affiliates in the other markets did, but I assume it was pretty much what was done in the Little Rock market. On–air personalities, along with rank–and–file volunteers, would man the phones, and the names of local folks who had called in pledges (that's what they were called before telethons started using credit cards to collect commitments, presumably because too many people didn't honor their pledges) were announced on the air.

A couple of times, as I recall, my brother and I persuaded my mother or father to allow us to call and make a pledge. We wanted to hear our family mentioned on TV. I never watched the telethon for hours on end, though, just snippets at a time, and I never heard my family's name mentioned. Maybe I was out of the room when it happened — or outside playing with my friends.

That isn't to say that the telethon's guests were necessarily from my generation or even the one just before it. Mostly they were entertainers my parents and grandparents remembered from before my birth, but they were still big names, and they still drew big audiences.

I guess the telethon lost much of its appeal when, courtesy of cable, it ceased to be the only show in town in the wee hours of the morning. I don't remember ever thinking to myself, "I'm not gonna watch it this year," but it was never a conscious decision. There were simply other things I wanted to do with my three–day weekend, and time was running short by Labor Day. In the back of my mind, it was always a fallback position. If nothing else, I could always watch the telethon for a little diversion.

Then last year it was no longer an option.

The last telethon was two years ago. Lewis stopped hosting it in 2010 — he was in his mid–80s by that time, and he had a history of health issues.

It wasn't the same even the last time I saw it, though. I didn't recognize most of the people who appeared with Lewis — the way I did when I was a child. Things truly do change. Everything. It is the only constant in this world.

The telethon was the source of many good memories for me. That is all they are now, I suppose. Memories.

But I will say this. Every cause should have a Jerry Lewis to promote it with a telethon. He managed to get just about every big name to appear on the telethon at least once, and he was tireless in his dedication to the effort.

In the entertainment world, I guess, he was seen as a clown, a jester, a buffoon. But in the world of philanthropy, he stood tall.