Labor Day 2017

It's Monday, Labor Day here in Olympia Washington. Wasn't this the day that the Jerry Lewis Telethon used to be on TV.

It began back when I was a kid. I think I remember the first one. I just checked and the first episode was September 4, 1966, so it's very likely I do remember the first one. I was 14 and not yet acquainted with the wide world outside my windows. It was 3 years after Kennedy was killed and I would have been in starting 7th grade. That means I would have been going to Nettie Hartnett school, way across town.

I'm sure I would have been getting a ride most days to school with my mom, at least at the beginning. I remember walking there and back many times. It took a long time to get there, I remember that. Almost everyone in town went to Nettie Hartnett for 7th grade. After that, 8th and 9th grade were held at the Junior High School and then 10th through 12th were at the Leavenworth Senior High.

I just looked at the website for Nettie Hartnett and it's not where I remember it. (long pause in writing) I'm back after a confusion-induced fugue state in which I went back through on-line records and maps to reconcile what I remember about my childhood. I don't have it all but the addition of Ritz crackers has helped immensely in maintaining my concentration as I made my jagged way across the thorny monkey-bars of the midwestern past.

The school I remember as being Nettie Hartnett was in fact the North Broadway School which was indeed pretty far away from my house and I'm sure served as the 7th or 8th grade gathering place during the year I was facing that respective travail. I don't feel like hammering out the final historical reasons for it but I do remember going there during that period.

Anyway, to return to the main point, that would have been the year that the MDA Telethon began. While I had a couple friends (Bruce Taylor and Danny Hinds) for the most part I was as solitary as an oyster, in the words of Dickens unstopperable tale of Christmas. Being socially solitary, I spent my evenings in the cloistered world of my parents' house. During that same time, I believe now that my remaining at-home sister, Bonnie was busy being less than solitary to her own doom.

At any rate, I would stay home and be enthusiastically in favor of anything my parents were interested in watching. At that time, it's important to remember, I had no self will or inkling that my opinion was even worth cultivating. I believed that my opinions should rightly be exactly whatever my parents' opinions were. It made everything so much easier. At least it seemed to.

Therefore, since Jerry Lewis, or just "Jerry" as my mom called him, was rightly ranked as a True American Icon and among the Pantheon of Real Class with names such as; Bing Crosby, Red Skelton, Harry Truman, Myron Floren, Victor Borge, Ed Wynn, and Dwight Eisenhower, I was wholeheartedly in favor of anything Jerry would put this hand to. The very fact that he was trying to help crippled children, a class of which I was a former member✲, made me support his efforts even more. When I say that I liked what my parents liked, I don't want you to think that secretly I had any other thoughts, or that I resented their apparent domination of my life or that I was putting on a show. I wholeheartedly loved what they loved even if I didn't understand our reasons for loving or hating a particular person or concept.

You have to remember now that a Telethon was a brand new thing then and that it wasn't over in 30 minutes or an hour, it went on for hours (2.5 apparently, as I see now by looking it up). It was like a huge poorly put-together variety show with intermittent appeals for contributions. A little like Public Radio or Public Television Fund Drives later became, only so much more meaningful, because it was for "the kids".

I don't remember who co-hosted with Jerry and the first time it didn't matter. Jerry loved to talk to both the camera and anyone else who came on to explain the way they were planning to beat Muscular Dystrophy with this new weapon of televised entertainment. The show was a mixture of an evening with Jerry Lewis, Hollywood Palace with variety acts, and Sesame Street with educational segments like "The Scourge of Muscular Dystrophy" and "Research Scientists on the March". We were going to beat MD the same way we defeated the Axis Powers, with American willpower and drive. I think he actually brought out Jonas Salk at some point to draw some direct and meaningless comparison between MD and Polio.

Every so often, they would trot out (actually "roll out") a child in a wheelchair for everyone to see. Then Jerry would talk to the kid and make meaningful glances at the camera while the kid would give answers like "Yes" or "My mom helps me dress" or "I want to grow up to be a scientist to help other kids like me" and the studio audience would go wild and tears would well up in eyes across the nation. The Jerry would give the Hebrew God's blessings to the little crippled kid, call them sweeheart and the live band would play them off the stage. Jerry would then stand up (he'd been kneeling to put himself on the same debased level as the tiny cripple with the Brylcreemed hair and say something that amounted to: if this little kid has the strength and fortitude to sit there, all fucked up like that and say he wants to be a scientist, when we all know he'll either die next year or end up as a nameless, guy with thick glasses shining shoes in some bus station or sitting on a corner next to a pile of newspapers, then you goddamm better reach into your pocket and give us some money pronto, you smug piece of shit.

Credit cards were just getting started back then and I don't think you could use them yet for that kind of thing, so the way it worked was you called into a toll free number that showed at the bottom of the TV screen and gave them all kinds of contact information and named a dollar amount that was directly in proportion to how much you cared for all the little crippled kids and they would send out a pledge card to you in the mail. When you got it 2 weeks later you would either throw it into the trash because your interests had shifted in the meantime or you'd sit down and write out a check and send it in to assuage your conscience.

Needless to say, a lot of pledges didn't get redeemed along with the souls of those POS's who'd made them. It also goes without saying that the advent of making pledges by credit card made a big difference in collections.

During the whole show they had a "Tote Board" that would be periodically updated with a big flourish and drum-roll to show the new total of pledged money. Later, they had the band play the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song "What the World Needs Now is Love Sweet Love" during the Tote-Board updates. I wonder now if Bacharach got paid royalties for that. (I just looked up Bacharach's net worth; $150,000,000. Yes, he's still alive. Who wouldn't be with that kind of Kablingy in the bank.)

I remember being so excited to see the totals come and go during the show. I would bug my parents to call in and pledge. They did. I can't remember how much the pledge was, my folks weren't rich. I'm sure my mom would have sent in the check.

I also remember listening to them talk about the psychology of the pledges. Mostly that it was better to call in later to the broadcast so that you would be part of the group that made the final goal happen. We would stay up and watch as long as we could, which meant until my dad said it was time to turn off the TV and go to bed. It was a little like Christmas. We would talk about how much we thought the final total would be. We were in Kansas and the first show was from New York so we saw the first one to its ending. In subsequent years I think they were done in L.A. so it went on for quite a while after we went to bed and the phone lines were answered for some time after the show ended. Either way, we wouldn't know how much was raised until we saw the next day's newspaper.

The payoff to the show would be Jerry singing "You'll Never Be Alone" at the end and breaking up, crying through the ending, but finishing the song nonetheless with a visible struggle for dingity. It was universally moving and since he did it first, he owned the move and people talked about it for days and thereafter expected it from at the end of every year's show as part of the solemn contract he'd made with all the little people for their continuing belief in his goodness and sincerity. I'm sure in the later years he would wear a shock collar beneath his tuxedo shirt that could be energized in case the tears failed to appear on cue. I'm equally sure it was never necessary because he was a professional and could be counted on produce whatever was needed.

Over the years, fewer people watched the Telethons but they continued to raise and even increase the annual nut from the loyal aging population who had suffered through the loss of Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Lawrence Welk.

I imagine those crippled newsies would see the totals on the front pages before most everybody else and I wonder if any of them expected to one day be contacted with the good news that the contributions had finally allowed the guys in the white coats to find a cure for whatever was keeping them in wheelchairs. They probably already knew they were never getting out of those chairs. Every scientist in their "little laboratory" had hopes of winning the Nobel prize, but the newsies understood the way the world worked. After all, in the great magic show of life, they had been called up onto the stage by God, as unwilling volunteers from the audience for the demonstration. Except they weren't asked for their pocket watches but for their legs.  

Cutting to the chase, Muscular Dystrophy was not defeated, even though the Telethons continued for another 44 years and ultimately raised almost $2.5 billion over that time (military spending in 1966 alone was $56.6 billion - not adjusted for inflation). The Vietnamese weren't defeated either, indicating that many problems just can't be solved with money.

The Telethons did change some things though, They provided funding to many research programs, they gave Jerry's career a third phase for which he will be remembered, and they gave the average middle class American household a warm feeling that comes from being a part of a distributed community of 125 million households at 125 million different TVs, the illusion that they were not irrelevant and that they'd done their bit for "those less fortunate". It may have even given some portion of handicapped community the assurance that they weren't forgotten by society or at least that they'd been given due attention.

At the same point in history we were creating a vast new graduating class of "those less fortunate", here and abroad through the use of our armed forces and tax dollars. A new wave of newsies, shoe repair people and amazing talented folks who could paint a picture without their arms, using only portions that remained to them. We gave over a million more people the chance to overcome limitations and show the world the meaning of the word "spunk".

You can't fault us for trying.

This little piece grew way out of control and I really didn't mean for it to be so "mean", but it sure came out that way. I guess I needed to get it out of my way.

I'm glad that Labor Day went back to being a day off for people who work hard and hate their jobs. Maybe some day we'll try another form of Cripple's Day only more p.c.

More later,

✲ (Crippled children who had grown beyond the youthful and pitiable "child" phase no longer held an official distinction in society. they (we) were simply beings in transition to becoming members of the marginal layer of society who repaired shoes, sold newspapers on the street corners of large cities and general moved from place to place with eyes looking down, avoiding contact with the visible members of the world.)


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