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That was just sad

September 5, 2011 - John Mehno
This is Labor Day. Ordinarily, I'd be rushing home from the ballpark to catch the end of the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon.

It's been a guilty pleasure for decades. A volatile man, deprived of sleep, in a high-pressure situation...what could be more compelling? You never knew when Jerry would lecture the crew about missing a cue, or scold the bandleader. It was magic. You'd see vintage show biz people who don't have a stage any more -- like Norm Crosby and Charo. And, of course, no matter how obscure the guest was, Jerry would give him or her an intro would suggest the person was royalty.

Sometimes there were real moments of significance -- the reunion of Dean Martin and Jerry, brokered by Frank Sinatra, was one. The Telethon was aging, and the MDA people always seemed to be at war with Jerry. There were criticisms of the way he treated his "kids." There was resentment by adults who didn't want to be one of "Jerry's kids." As the years went on, the people in suits took more and more control. In recent years, Jerry was seen less and less. He would open the show, then disappear for a while. Another appearance, another break. But it would always end with Jerry performing, "You'll Never Walk Alone," sometimes in a frazzled emotional state.

Despite the best efforts to squeeze the Jerry-ness out of the show, it was all about Jerry. He would mug and make faces as people presented huge donations. He would make inappropriate jokes. He was Jerry.

This year's "telethon" is already over. It was a six-hour variety show that ran from 6 p.m. to midnight on Sunday. There were four hosts, all of whom paid homage to Jerry and said he was "retired" from the telethon. He didn't retire, the MDA people threw him off. Tradition means nothing, nor did Jerry's ability to raise huge amounts of money for the cause.

They closed the show singing "God Bless America." The faux hosts sent greetings to Jerry, like he was out of the country and just couldn't make the show this year.

Look, times change. Most TV stations don't want to clear 22 hours for a show any more. In recent years, some stations either cherry picked certain hours or they pushed some of it off on lesser affiliated channels. It's not 1966 any more and the television business is radically different. The end of the telethon as we knew was probably inevitable.

But Jerry's exit didn't have to play out the way it did. It was a sad spectacle. Jerry deserves better than the heave-ho from people who benefited from his work for nearly 50 years.

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