Another year, another telethon. And still no cure for Jerry Lewis.
"Jerry's been doing this telethon, he tells us, for 30 years," said Robert Guillaume, amid choruses of "I Believe" yesterday, "It seems like longer than that to me."
Like maybe, 300 years?
But now the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon, which annually raises millions of dollars for research and treatment of muscular dystrophy and other neuromuscular disorders, is a pop-cultural institution; its awfulness is enshrined in tradition, like the "Miss America Pageant" that also helps end American summers and begin American falls.
In its way it is a piece of sleazbo perfection, so much phony showbiz sentimentality and trumped-up pathos that it actually is on some mad level genuinely affecting, though probably seldom the way it is intended to be.
Hey, you're beautiful. Really sensational. Wonderful. Just wonderful. Sweetheat. Darling. Baby. Special. Very special. Tuh-riffick. "Jerry's Kids." "My kids."
"Did I kiss you?" Jerry asked straight man Ed MacMahon after the tote board went to more than $27 million and the band had played "What the World Needs Now" for the umptyumpth time. Jerry always kisses Ed when they make another trip to the tote board.
Liza Minnelli to Jerry: "Your voice is starting to get hoarse. Are you all right?"
Jerry: "Yeah, I'm tuh-riffic."
Actually his voice had started to get hoarse the night before. It started early this year. Every year a certain cult of Jerry Lewis Telethon watchers keeps tabs on when his voice gets hoarse, when he cries, when he starts in with the toity jokes, how many times he kisses Ed McMahon.
"We have to do what we do," said Jerry. And the studio audience in Las Vegas clapped.
"I'm 54, I'm gonna be 55," said Jerry. and the audience in Las Vegas clapped.
"I don't think that they'd give me the right table at the 21 Club in New York, but I'll bet you I'd be the king of the automat, if they still have one," said Jerry.
"Courage is such a tuh-riffick thing."
He's been called "pretty corny," Jerry said. "I don't know anything I'd rather be."
Jerry and Lorna Luft are in Las Vegas on a split screen with Liza Minnelli, Lorna's half-sister, who is in New York.
Lorna to Liza: "I love you."
Jerry to Liza: "She said she loved you, Liza."
Liza to Jerry: "I know. I heard her."
It used to be that telethons were common fixtures on television, in the early days when there was plenty of time to spread around and not that much money to be lost by giving it away to charity. But performers began to use the telethons for sanctimonious self-aggrandizement and eventually there was a disease shortage -- too many telethons to go around.
That great man Steve Allen helped put the kibosh on this questionably charitable work when he spoofed the practice on his comedy show with a "Telethon for Prickly Heat."
"We must stamp out this scourge of all mankind," said Steve.
The Lewis show survives to this day, however, and it's become hard to imagine summer television ending without it. Oh, not impossible, mind you, just hard.
Now the best part or the worst part -- or both, depending on the point of view -- always comes at the end when Jerry sings "You'll Never Walk Alone" and we wait for him to break up. One year he got mad and wouldn't sing it. Yesterday, in the waning minutes before 6:30 p.m., he did.
At the line "Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart," he choked up.
"I'm a happy man and at peace with myself," he said, interrupting the song. Part of the purpose of the telethon is to make Jerry Lewis a happy man who is at peace with himself. Before beginning the song, he said, "There is no no point in listening to dissenters. Ther's a line written about what morality is. More-ality. 'A man can only achieve morality by knowing what he has to do and doing it.' I do what I have to do."
Audience: applause. Even more applause than when Sammy Davis Jr. said from Atlantic City, "This is my 50th year in show business."
Only his 50th? Not his 500th?
But oy, the entertainment! Twenty-one and one-half hours of entertainment!
A rich feast that this year included Joey Heatherton, Lola Falana, Donny and Marie (on tape), Blondie (on tape), and Hugh Hefner's famous tone-deaf discovery Barbi Benton, who sang an impeccably off-key, "Hey, Big Spender" accompanied by dragon puppets whos nostrils spewed smoke.
You just can't get lousy entertainment like this on television every day.
In fact, the Jerry Lewis Telethon is one of the last remaining sources of live, real-time, non-taped (for the most part), old-fashioned Las Vegas vaudeville. The director, Arthur Forrest, probably directs more live TV variety in two days than is seen on the networks all year. And he directs it sometimes dazzlingly well, too.
But on a show that has featured Minnelli and Sinatra and the cast of "A Chorus Line," which star from the show business firmament do they save for the last hour? Why, Wayne Newton, of course. He kissed Jerry on the cheek and then shouted, "One, two, One-two-three-four!"
It appeared he was going to sing.
Earlier, singer-dancer Ben Vereen talked between songs about how a childhood friend of his once "came down with Mda." MDA stands for Muscular Dystrophy Association, the telethon's sponsoring organization.
But hey, his heart was in the right place.
A lot of Jerry's kids were brought before the cameras, and sometimes they were as moving as they were being called upon to be, and sometimes they kept their dignity even with David Hartman the Professonal Conscience breathing down their necks. Keeping your dignity in this setting is one of the great challenges available to a victim of the disease, especially a young one who has to sit there while Jerry croons, "He can't run and play like his friends are all doing" and guest contributors refer to the disease as a "vicious killer."
One man who repeatedly kept his dignity was Robert G. Sampson, a member of the MDA board of directors, who said from a wheelchair, "I stopped walking in 1934" and wasn't expected to live beyond the age of 20.
And when Jerry danced with a woman for whom recently discovered treatments have been successful, it was hard indeed to suppress the old goose pimples and throat lumps.
They danced to "What the World Needs Now."
Lewis, who hadn't made a movie in 10 years, has one ready for release soon: "Hardly Working," shot in Florida. In an interview for Los Angeles Magazine, Lewis said recently, "I'm a multifaceted, talented, wealthy, internationally famous genius." And don't forget king of the automat.
The telethon is carried on a "Love Network" of 213 stations in the United States. In Washington, the participating station is WTTG, Channel 5, but the station saw fit to pre-empt the first two hours of the telethon for its regular, paid-for programming. This segment, the kick-off for the telethon, included appearances by Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra, but it wasn't seen in Washington, nor in Baltimore, where WMAR-TVdelayed the telethon until 11:30 so it could squeeze in one more if its profitable local newscasts.
On Channel 5, a station executive appeared on the screen early in the telethon to ballyhoo the station's participation in "this overwhelming labor of love."
It was also an overwhelming labor of hype, since at every cut-away from Las Vegas to the local fund-raising effort, the station made sure to air promos for its big fall lineup of old network reruns, especially "Welcome Back Kotter," for which it paid a bundle.
Morality, of course, is knowing what you have to do and then do it.
"I don't want to appear cocky," said Jerry after surpassing last year's grand total of about $30 million. "But my heart told me the public would respond."
He coughed. He sweated. He puffed cigarettes. He stuck the microphone in his mouth and went "Awghh awghh." He teared up. He choked up. He said, "God bless the children. Good night."
Jerry, you're beautiful.