September 3, 2012

Time passages

 
I first saw this commercial on Channel 11, WTCN, in the late summer of 1971.  I'd heard of telethons before, from my mother and grandmother, and knew vaguely that it was some kind of marathon TV program that went on for hours and hours, but I had the idea that it was something from the past, like dance marathons.  So I was intrigued by this, in a big way.  I was also a big Jerry Lewis fan - no, I'm not French, but I was a normal kid* who'd grown up waiting in line at the Riverview and Nile Theaters to see movies like The Disorderly Orderly and The Nutty Professor.  And it was scheduled for Labor Day Weekend, when I'd be enjoying my first day off after having started school the week before.  Oh, this was a winner, all right.  I was hooked (and would remain so for decades), and the show hadn't even started yet.

*Or as normal as you could ever call me.

These were the days when there was still a sense that late-night was for adults, and there was no such thing (at least in Minneapolis) as all-night television.  The thought of watching TV at 3am, while the rest of the neighborhood was sound asleep, was enormously exciting.  I planned to take a nap Sunday afternoon to give me every advantage possible in staying up for the entire 20 hours, but as I recall I was too excited (and too well-rested) to sleep that afternoon, so I'd have to try and go for it for about 38 hours by the time I would be ready for bed Monday evening.

No, I wasn't able to make it all the way through that first telethon - I started fading around 5:00 Monday morning, when I found that I wasn't able to remember how to pronounce the Minnesota town "Mankato."  Next thing I knew it was about three hours later.  I was crushed in the way that only an 11-year-old with no conception of "next year" could be, but at the same time I'd had a blast.  It was the first time I'd ever heard of muscular dystrophy, and I immediately decided it was a charity worth supporting - I even made a $3 pledge on the phone.  My schoolmates and I talked about the show the next day at school, comparing how many hours we'd managed to watch, and  spent the next 11 months counting down the days until Labor Day (along with Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's), vowing that the next time would be different. 

And I made it that next year, but not without a battle.  The battle wasn't with sleep, however, but with TV.  To be sure, Channel 11 would be showing the telethon again, but we wouldn't have Channel 11 - we'd moved to hell on earth, a town with only one television station - and they weren't showing the telethon.  The solution (and I don't know how my mother ever put up with my childish eccentrities for so long) was to rent a room at a nearby motel, one that had access to the Minneapolis TV stations.  In that room, complete with room service, we spent Sunday and Monday, and I watched my telethon.

We did that for a couple more years, and then I began to appreciate the absurdity of the situation.  I didn't see the telethon until 1978, when we'd moved back to the cities as I began college, and the fun was back on.  The show was different by then; variety shows were pretty much dead by then and Jerry had moved the show from New York to Vegas to be closer to the casinos that offered the kind of entertainment that featured on the show.  There were still stars, singers and dancers and Sammy and Frank (and even Dean one year) and the rest, but as that kind of entertainment went out of style, the show became more and more populated by, what seemed to me, talent that probably played the lounge rather than the main room.  By the time I stopped watching the show full-time, there just wasn't much to see.  Even then, I tried to watch an hour or so, but it was mostly for old times' sake.

And then last year it ended, when MDA dumped Jerry.  That whole debate is for another day, but the lack of transparency on the part of the charity's management troubles me; if they aren't forthcoming on the details of this, are we sure that they can be trusted in the rest of their dealings?  So for the last couple of years I haven't given to MDA, and until I'm satisfied things are still on the up-and-up I probably won't.

I still have those childhood memories, though, of both the good years and the not-so-good, and so for me Labor Day will always means something special.  And I'll always thank Jerry for that.

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