For most people, the fact that Monday is Labor Day means that the banks are closed, there is no mail, and that you won’t have a hard time finding a cookout to get a juicy brat and a cold beer. As great as those things are, I like a good sausage as much as the next guy, for me Labor Day has always been about something much more special. For the first 18 years of my life, the fact that it was Labor Day weekend meant that it was MDA Telethon time. Every year growing up I would spend the majority, if not all, of this weekend at the local Fox television station raising money for MDA. So in recognition of MDA and the people who are devoting their whole weekend to helping others less fortunate than them, I thought that I would share with you what it is like for those two days straight on the air.
For those of you unfamiliar with the MDA Telethon, here is a little information, but you can find a lot more at www.MDA.org. While some small scale telethon type events were done for MDA in the 1950s, the modern MDA Telethon, which forever will be associated with the great Jerry Lewis, was first broadcast in 1966, and it went nationwide in 1971. The show is filled with various comedy and musical acts that perform so that people will tune in and donate to MDA. Some of the greatest entertainers of the last four decades, like Billy Crystal, Johnny Cash, and “The Rolling Stones,” have all been guests over the years. For the next 40 years Jerry Lewis hosted this 20 hour, all night broadcast every Labor Day, and in that time he raised an astonishing $2 billion to help eradicate neuromuscular diseases. In 2011 due to his failing health, Lewis stepped down as host, and the show was reduced to a six hour show. This year, the Telethon is called “The MDA Show of Strength Telethon,” and it is only two hours long on ABC on Sunday the 31st at 9pm EST.
As I said before, for a lot of years while I was growing up, since I was the regional MDA goodwill ambassador, I spent the majority of the 20 hour Telethon at the local studio. The way it would work is the national show, which is where Jerry would be hosting in Las Vegas, would periodically stop (a few times an hour), and the broadcast would switch to your local station’s telecast (each with its own hosts and such). Every local show would have interviews with people from the area who have been helped by MDA, donations from local businesses, and other little bits that show people that their generosity will help people in their own communities. What made this on again off again method a little bit tricky is that, although there was initially a schedule of when these cutaways (a term we use in the biz) would be and how long, every year by the third hour of the show we would be so out of sync that the itinerary was thrown out the window. This meant that we didn’t always have a lot of notice as to when we would be going live, so we had to be ready to go all the time. This made for a pretty chaotic and stressful environment at times, especially when you had already been going for 15 hours and were running on adrenaline, coffee, and Mountain Dew. That being said, I know I speak for all of us who have hosted over the years when I say that we loved doing it and wouldn’t have had it any other way.
When I think back about my time on the Telethon as a kid, here are some of the things that come to mind (and remember that I was between 4 and 9 years old). I remember my family and I getting put up in this sweet apartment for the weekend, so that we would have a place for them to be while I was working, and I would have a place to rest if necessary. It was not only huge, but it even had a balcony overlooking a lake, and we fed ducks the crust from our toast in the morning. I remember getting fitted for a tuxedo for the first time. I looked like a gimpy “Monopoly Guy” or “Mr. Peanut,” complete with top hat and cane. The cane was confiscated from myself and another host around hour six though, because we were having a sword fight between broadcasts. I remember the smorgasbord of amazing food. Every hour a couple of restaurants would bring in a boatload of takeout for everyone working. There was fried chicken, pizza, shrimp egg rolls, and anything else you can imagine, and if they didn’t have it, they would get it the next hour. I remember the incredible individuals who I worked with. From the hosts to the cameramen to the people manning the phones, everyone involved with the Telethon was happy to give up their holiday weekend to help others. The electric atmosphere and common goal we all shared created a family-like bond between us that will last forever. I am still friends with some of the people who I only saw once a year when we would host together.
Most importantly though, I remember everything that the Telethon and MDA have done for me, my family, and so many other people afflicted by a neuromuscular disease. Especially 20 years ago before the internet, Wikipedia, and instant access to any information, MDA was critical in educating families with a newly diagnosed child about their disability. They also provide affordable access to medical specialists for disabled people, as well as helping to pay for medical equipment and other adaptive technology to make life easier for those with muscular dystrophy. They also work to bring a better quality of life and new experiences to disabled people by holding events like MDA Summer Camp every year. Last but not least, MDA spends millions of dollars every year funding research to find cures and treatments for the more than 40 neuromuscular diseases they are fighting to eliminate. This money is what has allowed spinal muscular atrophy, my disability, to be named as one of the diseases most likely to be cured in the near future.
Although it is a very different show now than when I was hosting, the MDA Telethon still has the same goal and helps millions of people. This weekend, as you are enjoying your holiday with your family at the lake or cooking some burgers and playing horseshoes in the back yard, take a few minutes to think about those who by random chance are afflicted for life by a neuromuscular disease. Turn to ABC Sunday night and watch the amazing line-up of performers who are donating their services to help others, and if you are able, please call in and make a donation, because it is only through the generosity of people like you that this event can achieve its goal of ending muscular dystrophy. You can rest assured that I will be watching, and as much as I loved hosting the Telethon, I would love to someday spend a Labor Day weekend where I don’t tune in to this show because, thanks to the charitable contributions of people like you, it is no longer necessary.