There’s something wrong with a world in which Jerry Lewis doesn’t sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” on Labor Day. It’s unnatural. It throws the seasons out of whack.
The annual MDA Labor Day Telethon, hosted by Lewis, always provided a splashy, show-bizzy finish to summer. From the time I was fourteen, immediately after Lewis finished sobbing/over-enunciating his way through the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, I swear I could see leaves begin to fall and taste those horrible school lunches.
But the eighty-five year old humanitarian and comedy legend has been dumped as MDA National Chairman and telethon host. And after nearly sixty years with the organization, it looks as though he won’t even make an appearance on the 2011 telethon to sing his signature sign-off tune.
In our home, the post-telethon review of Jerry’s song was an annual ritual. And I say this with admiration, respect — and yes, I admit — a smidgen of snark. But it’s an amalgam of snark and awe.
Picture it: Jerry is wearing his signature perma-tux, bow tie undone in “Vegas Casual” mode. The camera dollies in as he reaches the closing lyric, “And you’ll ne-ver walk a-lone (ORCHESTRA CRESCENDO) You’ll NEV-er walk alone!” The orchestra strikes up the peppy, “Smile” from Chaplin’s Modern Times. My brother and I parse the fine points of Jerry’s performance. (Nowadays we live in different states and carry on the tradition via Skype). Did Jerry make it through the song without crying? How did his performance compare to previous years on the Schmaltz Scale? And most important: Don’t the two of us have anything better to do with our time?
In 2006 I performed in “Obsessed,” a Sunday night cabaret created by Julie Klausner and Jackie Clarke. It was a show-and-tell in which comedians and comedy writers confessed their weird hobbies and secret passions. I admitted to keeping a tape archive of Jerry Lewis singing his annual rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” My collection begins with a 1966 audiotape, when the telethon was a local New York City affair broadcast from the old Americana Hotel. Then in 1981 I bought my first VHS recorder. Here are two of the clips I screened for the “Obsessed” crowd:
1988: Jerry looks peeved. Can’t blame him; he’s been awake for over twenty-four hours. While the pianist plays an extended vamp, Jerry squints and says to an offstage technician, “If you give me a light I can do this. Thank you.” The song begins and Jerry is out of sync with the band. He turns around after “. . .and the sweet, silver song of a lark” and shoots the orchestra leader a dirty look. Soldiering on, Jerry sings a few more words, shrugs, and, referring to the orchestra leader, says to the audience, “He’s wrong.” Somehow they catch up with one another and Jerry finishes strong. Rating: five on the Maudlin Meter.
1992: Jerry seems refreshed and upbeat. He preemptively scolds the pianist, “Don’t rush, Martin, don’t rush. Take your time. And don’t play with your knuckles for a change.” Jerry’s only kidding, because, after all, this is the Love Network. Jerry is careful to read the lyrics very deliberately off the cue cards and makes it through the song without incident. He doesn’t cry as he sets the microphone on the stool. Darn it.
2011: Not only is Lewis unceremoniously cut from the telethon, the annual twenty-two hour spectacle has been trimmed to a short-attention-span-friendly six hours. Times and tastes change; I get it. But six hours is not a telethon. Six hours is a DVD extra on the box set of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
Thankfully, Jerry Lewis is still with us. But I’m saddened that another pop culture touchstone is gone. We have so few of them left.
Comedy writer Barry Mitchell lives in Howard Beach, NY. His website is Barryfunny.com.
The 1988 Jerry Lewis clip of which you mention:
Many have criticized Jerry Lewis in recent years, but only because it has become fashionable, in my opinion. Talk radio in excess, and a new generation that has grown up with it now believe it is okay to to diss just about everything, without any consequences or responsibility. Lewis used his power of celebrity for good, however you believe egostistically or humbly, he still had the guts to do it to help MDA kids and adults. He did not care about whether people liked him, his methods or anything else as long as he was helping the MDA cause. POerhaps he should have retired from it a few years ago with grace, but felt he would be abandoning his “kids.” It is a tragety it has come to this. This mand should be respected and should have been given his due properly. If it went down he refused this kind of offer, it is only because he created the effort and felt some ownership. this telethon and it’s progress would have never happened without someone like Jerry Lewis’ celebrity and organizational skills who cared enough to start it to begin with. Those who would complain and laugh at him over this have no compassion only for themselves and their own ego, to regurgitate their negativity in a world already filled with hate and hopelessness. It becomes about old Jerry, and not the children with this devestating disease, this stinking Muscular Dystrophy. I grew up watching a man show compassion every Labor Day weekend. Another generation grew up and saw it too. to those who would criticize for a past time, thinking that your opinion of Jerry Lewis is more important than the cause, how much did you give to MDA this year? Can you child walk? Be thankful. Jerry does not want your thanks, I think, he just wants a cure. To those who don’t get it, I am sure you will open your mouth and more ______ will come out of it in the name of some phoney higher cause you heard about on some talk radio show (mostly a need for self importance over others) , because that is what you know how to do best: spread hatred for self entertainment. While Jerry Lewis attempted to spread love and joy and hope.