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As Jerry Lewis and his telethon age, the antics and drama also grow

By Tom Shales
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; C08

Old men weep. It comes with the gig. Jerry Lewis, 84, seemed on the verge of breaking down, or breaking apart, more often this year than usual during the Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). And when it came to the traditionally overwrought closing number, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone," he was so overcome that he sobbed through much of the song, rallying for the finish.

It was mesmerizing, agonizing and, to some extent, worrisome. For some time now, the telethon has been haunted by the possibility -- grim to speak of but impossible to ignore -- that each one could be Jerry's last. He has survived innumerable physical ordeals, including the year that steroids used to treat arthritis made him swell up into the Jerry Lewis Balloon. His tireless efforts for MDA have been vilified in some quarters as false or insensitive.

And then this year, at a news conference days before the telethon, he created his own ordeal -- by volunteering a prescription for straightening out celebrity train wreck Lindsay Lohan: "I would smack her in the mouth." He also suggested a spanking, perhaps to be administered over his knee. Realizing his outburst could be interpreted as absurd if not obscene, he went on to strike a more compassionate tone, slightly, by saying that young role models such as Lohan and rich brat Paris Hilton are "children . . . begging for help."

That's it; they're two more of "Jerry's Kids," only they made their own hardships.

In one of those dubiously reliable Internet pop polls, Lewis's opinions hardly earned him scorn; those responding to a "PopEater" survey voted 89 to 11 percent that Lewis was "spot on" with his remarks and not, in a word from the title of one of his best films, "nutty." Nor the more wince-inducing "senile."

But was Lewis being irresponsible or foxy when he erupted with the unexpected scolding? If he hadn't, he might not have made news, and if he hadn't made news, most of the media would have all but ignored the telethon -- in part because Jerry and his protracted plea have never been considered chic in smart circles nor sufficiently edgy amongst the hip. That's the unhappy fact of that, Jack.

Those of us who make it a point to tune in each year, at least for the last hour, and who have soft spots in our medicated hearts for Lewis -- this overgrown kid who, decades ago, represented irreverent youth long before hippies or punk rockers -- had to be taken aback by some of Lewis's observations and antics this year. They often dealt with mortality -- his.

During one of his long, rambling soliloquies, when he claimed that he had been extremely close to Jack, Bobby and Ted Kennedy, Lewis made more than one painfully pointed reference. He alluded to "by the time I have to go to rest" at one point and, soon after, pledged to telethon watchers that "I will be here as long as I breathe." By this time the total of donations, posted in lights on the set, was just over $49 million.

When Lewis signed off a few hours later, the grand total, according to MDA, was $58,919,838 -- short of last year's $60,481,231 but not by that much considering the recession that won't go away. Advisers had suggested he skip the telethon this year, Lewis said, because of the wretched economy. "They said, 'Why embarrass yourself?'," which is a pretty ridiculous question to ask Jerry Lewis.

He said he knew his audience would come through for his kids; and he appears to have been right. (Donations can still be made at http://www.mda.org.)

The telethon has aged, of course, just as Lewis has; he looked eerily dissipated. Ed McMahon, who played stooge for years, is gone now, and Lewis misses the foil. Assistant Jann Carl is charming but can't really trade rakish insults with the comic. Big stars like Joan Crawford (seen in a clip on the MDA Web site) don't come on anymore, but then, there aren't big stars like Joan Crawford anymore, are there?

Naturally there was a cute kid who'd been chosen as the living symbol for the campaign and, as usual, showed impressive presence and finesse: Abbey Umali, 11, who burbled "That's awesome!" every time a big corporate contribution came in. When a Burger King executive dropped off a hefty check, Abbey broke into the old "have it your way" jingle, though it hasn't been used in some time.

Much of what Lewis says every year -- about himself and his campaign against muscular diseases -- can without much trouble be interpreted as self-aggrandizing. At one point in the telethon, he marveled at the "awe" with which, he said, children look up to him. A brief tribute to Charlie Chaplin, consisting of only two film clips, seemed designed to assert that Lewis is every bit the genius that Chaplin was (he's certainly a more active and productive senior citizen than Chaplin was).

Showing his cranky side, and hinting at his notorious temper, Lewis complained repeatedly about the sound equipment, the plug in his ear and not being able to hear. He was still griping about it in the 20th hour of the 21-hour event. He called for the director to cut to a shot of him because "I just wanted to see if I was still on," he said. Later he demanded that the lights be dimmed "because they are so bright, I can't even think."

So he's an old man. So he began one sentence, "Up until I got to be 75 . . . " And so he said of his physical condition, "I do understand: No hanky-panky anymore."

Okay, Aristophanes was a vulgarian too, all right? Jerry Lewis is still the only Jerry Lewis we've got or have ever had, and he carries a banner for more than one show-business generation now all but extinct. Each week, obituary columns carry more names of the people who once captivated America or, at the least, amused it, and who remain only as ghosts on celluloid or videotape.

Brandishing the hand-held microphone he uses often, Lewis told the audience, "I had this before I had to go potty," a reference of course to his astonishingly lengthy career. Then, "for the 59th time," he said, he sang "You'll Never Walk Alone."

He was already tearful when the song began. And halfway into it, he cried almost uncontrollably, partially covering his fleshy old face with pages of notes he held in one hand. He'd made reference earlier to crying every year when he sang the song, but this year had to have been different -- much sadder, more poignant, more nakedly vulnerable.

Who knows where any of us will be, one year from now?

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