1966: Jerry Lewis' First MDA Labor Day Telethon
On this day in 1966, the very first Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day telethon came to a close. Held at the former Americana Hotel near Times Square and broadcast in the New York market by WNEW-TV, the event ran 19 hours, from Sunday night through Monday evening. Despite initial skepticism that the audience would be small because of the holiday weekend, the telecast was a success. It raised just over $1 million and, from that point on, became an annual Labor Day weekend event.
The 1966 show wasn't Lewis' first televised MDA fundraiser. He, along with comedy partner Dean Martin, made public appeals for MDA support on television (and radio) as early as 1951. Successful telethons were also held in June of 1956 and November of 1957 and 1959.
Over the years, the live Labor Day telethons featured appearances by some of television and film's biggest stars, showcased top musical acts, and included appearances by "Jerry's Kids." The show's live format and Lewis' zany personality fostered an anything-can-happen reputation. Perhaps the telethon's most famous moment was in 1976, when Lewis and Martin appeared on stage for the first time in 20 years, reunited by none other than Frank Sinatra.
In May, 2011, Lewis announced it was his final year of hosting the telethon, however a month before the broadcast, the Muscular Dystrophy Association announced Lewis was no longer its national chairman — a title he had held since 1952 — and he would not be hosting the event. Neither side would comment on the situation. That year the telethon's 21 1/2-hour format was cut to six hours, and presented live on the Sunday night before Labor Day.
This year, the show, renamed MDA Show of Strength, was boiled down to a three-hour special. To date, the Labor Day telethons have raised well over $2 billion for the MDA.