Justin M. Bowen
Published Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011 | 2:01 p.m.
Updated Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011 | 11:20 p.m.
“Jerry’s Kids” is the term. It refers clearly and specifically to a too-large population of young people suffering from the awful and debilitating symptoms of Muscular Dystrophy.
The “Jerry,” too, is universally understood. He is Jerry Lewis.
But over the past several weeks, Lewis’ name has been cloven from the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the organization for which he has raised more than $2 billion to help “his kids.” Lewis’ edging away has been gradual, measured and announced in an off-handed manner through news releases from the MDA office in Tucson.
Since the spring, the MDA has announced the telethon has been drawn back from 21 ½ hours to 6 for this year’s show, and Lewis’ name has been deftly edited out of the title. Even the restaurant place mats at South Point, the telethon’s Las Vegas TV headquarters, which featured Lewis’ famous black-and-white caricature, mysteriously vanished.
Initially, we were informed that Lewis would maintain his position as MDA chairman and appear one last time to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as a send-off on this year’s show. Weeks later, with no explanation, the MDA issued a news release saying he would no longer fill his administrative role with the organization (a position Lewis has held for more than five decades) and was not to be a part of the show after all (Lewis first hosted the national telethon in 1966).
But on Saturday, word seeped out that Lewis and the MDA had come to a reasoned conclusion that this year’s telethon would be far more meaningful with Lewis involved than not, and he is back on the telecast to say a final goodbye. This information surfaced as Lewis was to receive his Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Nevada Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame Gala at Red Rock Resort.
As I tweeted during the event (twice, actually), those involved in this year’s telecast are preparing for Lewis to appear. The original speculation was that Lewis would close with “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” But on Sunday, Lewis publicist Candi Cazau said Lewis was not planning on being on the telecast and there were no arrangements for him to take part. In any case, nothing has been formally announced about his possible return to the telecast. This issue remains a very delicate matter involving many headstrong individuals.
Lewis spoke from the podium for several minutes to a rapt audience of about 450 in the Red Rock Ballroom, but made no specific mention of the MDA or telethon. He’s been silent about the changes in the MDA hierarchy and telethon since those modifications were made public in the spring.
The MDA has specified this year’s hosts as Nancy O’Dell, Nigel Lythgoe, Jann Carl and Alison Sweeney. Celine Dion is reportedly contributing her time from Caesars Palace, and country music stars Darius Rucker, Lady Antebellum and Martina McBride have formally committed to the show. Also onstage will be MDA National Goodwill Ambassador Abbey Umali, who has herself become a staple of the show.
In accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award, Lewis first turned to the lineup of dignitaries standing behind him onstage, including Gov. Brian Sandoval, Reps. Joe Heck and Shelley Berkley, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and first gentleman Oscar Goodman; and longtime Las Vegas headliner Clint Holmes.
“I want to face you all and thank you, but I don’t know exactly how do that,” Lewis said, his back to the crowd. “So I’ll talk to the people first, then get with you guys.”
The audience laughed, and Holmes later said it was a particularly moving moment, as Lewis looked all of those representatives in the eyes as he spoke.
Lewis told a joke about riding the subway in New York with his daughter, Danielle. He hadn’t been on the subway for about 40 years, and the two spotted a young man bedecked fully in leather and chains and was heavily tattooed.
“His hair was spiked, green, yellow, white and purple. So I’m staring at him, and he looks at me and says, ‘What’s the matter, old man, didn’t you do anything unusual in your life?’ ” Lewis said, as the crowd chuckled. “I said, ‘Yeah, 20 years ago I had sex with a parrot. I thought you were my son!’ ”
Lewis can still bring the funny, no question, and even at 85 is still very active in his entertainment empire. The hope here is that the MDA/Lewis saga will settle into an outcome that will both benefit the organization and satisfy the public’s wish to see Lewis onstage for one last moment during the telethon he made an annual worldwide event.
I agree with comic and actor Richard Belzer, one of Lewis’ most strident supporters, that such an appearance would be one of the great moments in the history of TV. Everyone would win, most important the group who needs to triumph the most: Jerry’s Kids.