Monday, September 6, 2010

The MDA Telethon - A Childhood Memory

I remember when the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon was a local, one station affair broadcast from the Americana Hotel in New York City. This year is being touted as the 45th Annual Telethon, but I can tell you that this is incorrect.

The telethon began in 1956, with Jerry Lewis and his partner, Dean Martin, hosting a show on WNEW-TV in New York. They raised $600,000 to benefit the newly found Muscular Dystrophy Association of America. Again in 1957 and 1959, Jerry did two more shows, which he began calling “telethons.” These were the days when TV actually went off the air at about 1 or 2 in the morning, so the telethon was a huge event. I remember getting up in the middle of the night to see if it was really still on! And upon waking in the morning it was the first thing I checked.

Another aspect of those early telethons, which I found fascinating, was that at night pledges came in from far away places such as Connecticut and even Philadelphia! The TV signal during the daylight hours was very short range, but at night I could pick up Channel 3 in Philadelphia. I suppose they had discovered the same thing about signals from New York.

When I was 10, and this would be in either 1964 or 1965, my parents, along with my brother and I, collected for MDA and then went to the Americana to join in the long line waiting to dump their donations in the big carts that were set up inside the hotel hallway on the ground floor. I believe it was just outside the doors to the space that was being used for the Telethon. The 1966 Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon was the first to be held on Labor Day weekend and the first to raise more than $1 million.

The Telethon has grown larger over the years. I believe the 1966 date for today's so-called 45th Telethon represents the date of the first broadcast from New York that was linked to other cities, like Philadelphia. Eventually the Telethon left WNEW in New York for WOR-TV and then finally moved to Las Vegas. But nothing will ever compare to the close knit feeling of those first few years when one little station in New York gave birth to this annual event.

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