Telethon Man

jerry lewis, R.I.P.

My birthday nearly always falls on Labor Day weekend. As a child, the occasion meant action figures from the close-out rack at Uncle Tom’s Toys (yes, Uncle Tom‘s), and the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. I liked the telethon in the way I liked the Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show: If I was seeing it, then I was being allowed to stay up late.

The year I turned 8 I was gifted with a $5 bill by my far-away, rarely glimpsed paternal grandmother. Later that weekend, I tuned in the telethon. One of its pre-taped segments about children with muscular dystrophy got to me. I walked down to phone booth at the corner gas station, and pledged my birthday money to Mr. Lewis and the MDA. (Why I was walking down to the corner gas station to make a phone call is another story.)

A couple of weeks later, at a time when things happened at the pace of “a couple of weeks later…,” I received an invoice and an envelope, in which I was to tuck in my $5. By then, however, I’d decided that $5 was a lot of money, and I didn’t want to part with it. I felt guilty about not living up to my word, and about about letting down the children, my peers, but I didn’t feel guilty enough to send in the $5. And so I kept the cash. I don’t recall what I did with it, but my money’s on: (a) I spent it foolishly; or, (b) I lost it recklessly.

Lewis. who died Aug. 20 at the age of 91, last hosted the telethon in 2010. When I wrote his obituary for Yahoo!, I was struck by how few of the usual career plaudits came his way. There was no Kennedy Center tribute, no Mark Twain honor, no American Film Institute black-tie gala; the Jean Hersholt statuette that he did receive was met with backlash. He was “loved”; he was “reviled.”

And I’m the kid who reneged on a $5 pledge to his charity, so I don’t think I get a vote on this one.

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