Jerry Lewis and the Telethon, raising billions for his kids

Obit Jerry Lewis
Frank Sinatra (center), on the annual muscular dystrophy telethon in 1976, brings on Dean Martin (left), Lewis’ old partner. It was the first time Martin and Lewis had appeared together since their comedy team broke up in the 1950s.

On Dec. 23, 1969, in the middle of a blizzard, my family moved from Logan to our new home in Havertown. It seemed like the other end of the world.

A few weeks later, just as I was figuring we’d never make new friends, another family moved in next door, seven kids strong. We had only five, so that was a hefty tribe.

I remember watching as they started unloading boxes and filling up the house with furniture. But as there was so much snow on the ground, my snooping tendencies (highly developed at 8) were generally stymied.

But a few days later, I noticed something that surprised me, something my uneventful childhood hadn’t exposed me to before: two of the kids next door were in wheelchairs. Both brothers had muscular dystrophy, although it was months before I understood what that would mean for them, and for the neighborhood.

Those two boys, two years apart, were barely teenagers. They were sweet-natured and handsome, and my brothers and the other kids in the neighborhood became very close to them. They’d visit them next door, take them out for walks in their chairs, and always include them in block activities. One boy in particular was heroic: he came by almost every day to take them out and let them enjoy the sunshine.

I was reminded of my two neighbors, both of whom died decades ago from a cruel and crippling disease, when I heard that Jerry Lewis had died Sunday at 91.

For those of us of a certain age, children of the 1960s and ’70s, Lewis wasn’t a movie star or the other half of a famous duo — the other being a woozy, handsome Italian named Dino. For us, Jerry Lewis was the guy who filled our TV screens every Labor Day weekend with a two-day, nonstop marathon of a show dedicated to raising money for sick children, the ones like my neighbors who had pulled the short, cruel genetic straws of destiny. It was the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon, all designed to raise money for a cure. To help “Jerry’s Kids.”

I remember so many Labor Days at the Shore in the 1970s, watching with excitement as the big board on stage would tally what were then stratospheric sums: millions of dollars for research. (He wound up raising $2.6 billion over the years.) Along the way, the tuxedoed host, almost always with a cigarette in hand and sweat glistening around his forehead and collar, would present some of the most famous entertainers of the day. Some were fresh and new, like Donny and Marie, some fading but still famous, like Charo and Raquel Welch, and some his legendary friends,  like Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin. In one moving moment in 1976, his estranged buddy Dean Martin joined Lewis on stage for a reunion. No one tuned in to the telethon for the artistry. We watched because of Jerry, a force of nature, a whirling dervish of a kooky, endearing, pleading, bullying, loving, and glorious life. He was willing us to help him help those kids.

We always called in a pledge. I like to think it was because of our neighbors, that we were moved to help these boys who lived a driveway away from us and who were cheated out of so many things we took for granted. And that was a part of it.

But I think the bigger reason we picked up that phone and dialed the number on the screen in those long-ago days, when the only thing “smart” about your phone was how it felt when you accidentally dropped it on your foot, was because we loved Jerry. We saw his devotion to those kids, something that jumped right through the RCA console at you and into the living room, and we saw how tired he would get, and how manic, and how hopeful and genuinely good, and we wanted to help.

At least, that’s how I remember it.

I know he will be memorialized for his comic timing (the French rightfully called him a genius) and his pairing with Martin and his place as a pioneer in a profession that was always a little mysterious to those of us who led mundane lives (homework, chores, pimples).

But to me, and to those of my generation, he was a superhero in a tuxedo who showed up like clockwork every Labor Day for decades and gave us something more powerful than kryptonite: hope.

And of course, laughter.

And now the angels are smiling.