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After Nearly 60 Years, the Muscular Dystrophy Association Is Ending Telethons


Yesterday, the Muscular Dystrophy Association announced, after raising $2 billion, it was ending its annual Labor Day telethon.


RATH: In our house - maybe yours too - we called it the Jerry Lewis telethon. Lewis started hosting the MDA telethon in 1952 with comedy partner Dean Martin.


JERRY LEWIS: There we are - Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

DEAN MARTIN: (Singing) When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore.

RATH: It started locally, but quickly picked up stations and ultimately created an impromptu network for the annual 21-hour, live telecast. Lewis and Martin split up, but Jerry Lewis was able to attract the best talent, year after year, from Dolly Parton to the Jackson Five.


JACKSON FIVE: (Singing) Unintelligible.

RATH: In 1976, Frank Sinatra engineered a reunion between Lewis and Martin.


FRANK SINATRA: I have a friend who loves what you do every year and who just wanted to come out and - would you send my friend out, please? Would you send him out here? Come here.


MARTIN: We haven't seen each other for 20 years.

LEWIS: Yeah, well, you know, there was all those rumors about our breaking up. And then when I started the show, you weren't here, I believed it.


RATH: That broadcast brought in more than 85 million viewers. That's simply inconceivable in TV today. A lot of people also tuned in to see just how weird things would get with an exhausted Lewis, who might tease the cue card woman or make jokes in questionable taste.


LEWIS: But anyone can make a stupid mistake, sweetheart. This is all fun and games. You don't get upset. It will - let me - I'll pick one.

Isn't that wonderful how good Miguel is speaking since he got his green card?


RATH: As they have across the board in television, audiences began to dwindle sharply in recent years. Lewis' age and health problems cut into his participation, and he stopped hosting in 2010. And for the telethon, this may have finally done it.


LEWIS: And remember, donated to ALS or on my account - three, two, one.


RATH: That's Kermit the frog taking the ice bucket challenge, which has raised over $220 million for Lou Gehrig's disease. The director of the Muscular Dystrophy Association said that affirmed for him that it was time to find new ways to support their mission. Still, when you think of all the fundraising efforts that owe a debt to the celebrity-infused fundraising party Jerry Lewis created - live aid, comic relief, the benefit for Katrina victims and that ice bucket challenge - it's impossible to imagine modern day charity without thinking of Jerry Lewis and the Labor Day telethon.


LEWIS: Thank you. Good night.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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