The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon is hosted by Jerry Lewis to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. It has been held annually since 1966. As of 2007, the telethon had raised $1.46 billion since its inception.
It is held on Labor Day weekend, starting on the Sunday evening preceding Labor Day and continuing until late Monday afternoon, syndicated to approximately 190 television stations throughout the United States. In recent years, the telethon generally runs live for 21 hours, from 9PM ET to 6PM ET, though actual start and end times may vary by station. MDA calls its network of participating stations the "Love Network". The Telethon has originated from Las Vegas for 23 of the 40 years it has aired.
In 1968, after word of mouth of the success and stars appearing on the show, the "Love Network" was created when four other stations picked up the telethon -- WHEC-TV in Rochester, WGR in Buffalo, WTEV in Providence and WKBG in Boston. However, they met some opposition from the Theater Authority, an organization that represented theatrical-related labor unions, in which their permission is required before the representing talent can perform without charge. That year, permission was granted for talent to appear on the small telethon "network". The addition of the other stations helped raise the total to $1,401,876.
While they originally intended for the entire telethon to be seen, with the obligatory local pauses for station identification, WHEC chose to break in a few minutes every hour to show local volunteers in Rochester taking calls, and, as a result, WHEC had higher proceeds than the other "Love Network" stations. This is how the local cutaway was born. From here on, every Telethon had cutaways and other Telethon events used this formula as well.
By 1970, the telethon was seen nationwide on 64 stations; that year's edition was also the first coast-to-coast telethon, when it added Los Angeles to its station roster. It was also the year the Theater Authority lifted its ban on nationwide telethons. Proceeds this year came to $5,093,385. The show continued to gain popularity and huge stars throughout the next 2 years.
Then, in 1973, with 150 "Love Network" stations in tow, the telethon moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where it originated at the Sahara Hotel. It was also the year the telethon broke the $10 million mark, with its final tote being $12,395,973. However, the tote board, which was operated on a solari board, only had seven digits (to just under $10 million), so Jerry repeated his 1966 stunt of painting the "1" on the left after Ed came yelling off stage saying "I have a brush, and I have some paint...". The following year, an additional solari number flipper was added to the current seven digits, which would allow for displaying to just under $100 million.
Jerry Lewis anchored the entire broadcast—which would eventually expand to 21 1/2 hours—from its inception until 1983, when he rested for a few hours offstage after undergoing bypass surgery the year before. Lewis still continued to host at least 16 hours of his telethon until 1999 when he would appear for the first five hours and the last five hours of the telecast, allowing others to co-host. That year Lewis had suffered medical issues as well. The trend of taking a break in the evening was started in 1985 by Ed McMahon, Lewis' long-time co-host, who is a few years older than Jerry. Co-hosts have included talk show host Larry King, comedians Norm Crosby, Elayne Boosler, Bob Zany, TV personalities Chad Everett, David Hartman, Casey Kasem, Jann Carl, Leeza Gibbons, John Tesh, veteran singers Tony Orlando, Julius LaRosa (who began co-hosting for Jerry in remote locations since 1975), Sammy Davis Jr., and many others.
During the telethon's Las Vegas years in the 1970s and 1980s, the show originated at the Sahara until 1982 when it moved to a bigger space at Caesars Palace. The show continued there until 1989 when it originated from the Cashman Center in Las Vegas - the first and only time it was transmitted from a non-hotel in Las Vegas.
In 1990, the telethon originated from the Aquarius Theater in Los Angeles, then returned to Las Vegas and the Sahara Hotel until 1995 when it moved again to Southern California, to the CBS studios for 9 years and then in 2005 to Beverly Hills.
In 1998, MDA's successful all star landmark show became the first to be broadcast on the Internet by RealNetworks on the association's website After the telethon, the site features a special highlights reel of the telethon for that year.
The telethon returned to Las Vegas in 2006 at the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa (which was the South Coast its first year there), and has remained there through the 2008 telethon.
One such station is Chicago's WGN-TV, which, since the 1970s, pre-empted the afternoon segment of the telethon for Chicago Cubs or Chicago White Sox baseball. In another case, some use a sister station affiliated with either The CW, MyNetworkTV or an independent to show the telethon start, and/or air the station's network programming while the telethon station continues to air the telethon; this is the case with CBS affiliate WDJT in Milwaukee and its independent sister station WMLW-CA, which in 2007 aired the first four hours of the telethon during CBS prime time, then aired U.S. Open coverage on Labor Day to allow WDJT to carry the telethon. In Pittsburgh, WPXI carried the telethon, while sending NBC's coverage of the Deutsche Bank Championship golf tournament to independent station WBGN-LP.
Today, no Canadian station airs the telethon, though it is available on cable and satellite from WGN, as well as from border US stations. As of 2007, Muscular Dystrophy Canada continued to operate pledge call centers during the telethon to collect Canadian donations. The corporate donation segments still occasionally mention their Canadian donors, and WGN's telethon includes a number for Canadians to call to make a pledge, 1-800-567-CURE, which connects to the pledge center in Toronto. Most border stations would also show either the local pledge number for the Canadian portion of their viewing area, or the national Canadian number.
The final Canadian-based local broadcasts of the telethon aired from Ottawa in 2001. After this, MDC officials canceled the local broadcasts claiming cost savings. The Ottawa broadcasts were first hosted by CFRA radio's Ken Grant, who expressed concern that there would be fewer donations due to the loss of local broadcast features. Ottawa's telethon broadcasts were conducted for 31 years, most of which originated from the Skyline Hotel (later known as the Citadel Inn).
Telethon pledges were down another 7.5%, to $54,921,586 in 2005 due to significant Hurricane Katrina disaster relief efforts in New Orleans and throughout the region. That year, Jerry and his guests urged telethon viewers to also give donations to The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross. The MDA itself donated $1 million to The Salvation Army for hurricane relief efforts.
Prior to the hurricane-effected results of 2004 and 2005, the only other time the telethon raised less than the previous year was in 1982 ($28,400,000), during the recession of the early 1980s. One source said, however, that it was due to Jerry sitting out most of the telethon, due to his heart attack earlier. However the next year - 1983, the Telethon succeeded again in raising more money than its previous year and by 1984 was back to its record breaking pace.
In 2006, the final tote board tally was $61,013,855 as 5 major regional stations knocked out during previous telecast came back online. It was the first time since 2003 that the telethon raised more money than the previous year.
In 2007, the telethon again raised more than any previous year, closing the show with tote board pledges totaling $63,759,478.
On Labor Day in 2008 (September 1, 2008), Hurricane Gustav struck the coast of Louisiana. Some Love Network affiliates in the affected area have cancelled the telethon for safety and informational purposes; at least one Love Network station, KLFY-TV in Lafayette, Louisiana, has plans for a brief make-up telethon at a later date. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, the local telethon segments on WNOL-TV was also postponed, with WGNO, the local producer (as well as WNOL's co-owner) urging those wanting to give to do so through "the national telethon"; future plans to make up pledges locally are unknown. Nationally, Jerry Lewis mentioned Hurricane Gustav and wished those in the affected area, especially his "kids", luck. Neither he nor his guests made pleas for donations to The Salvation Army, contrary to a press release that said he would, although guest host Tom Bergeron did make a plea for donations to the Salvation Army during his hosting stint on the morning of September 1, as Gustav made landfall. However, with less than 10 minutes remaining in the 2008 telethon, the tote board update reflected an increase from the 2007 total, racking up $65,031,393 in donations, exceeding 2007's tote. Lewis had spoken about his concern at not making his goal of "one dollar more" due to economic conditions and Hurricane Gustav. When the tote board updated to show they'd gotten over 2007's total, he screamed three times, "I got it!"
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