When I was a kid, this was my training week.
Not for the school football team or anything like that. I was in training for The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. Each year my goal was to stay up and in front of the television set for every moment.
A couple of times I did order the Jerry Lewis Carnival Kit so you could put on a show in the backyard and donate a few dollars to the cause. And, much later, while at KMBC here in Kansas City, Maria Antonia and I hosted the middle of the night hours of the telethon. But, truth be told, my interest in the production, as a child, was Jerry Lewis and show biz. Growing up in a small Wisconsin town, it felt kind of naughty to stay up all night to hear Shecky Greene tell jokes and watch Charo cuchi-cuchi.
As an adult, I’ve visited with people who knew Jerry Lewis and, from some of what they say, he was not always a very happy Cinderfella. But, growing up he was a comedic hero around our house. One of my brothers, Craig, would replicate every Jerry Lewis facial expression while watching a Martin and Lewis movie. A bit later, when “The Errand Boy” came out, watching Craig do the entire “Boss” pantomime to the Count Basie Orchestra was something to behold.
Seeing Jerry Lewis perform Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter” was about as close to listening to classical music as I used to get. Along with all those Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoons.
On Saturdays, the Midway Theater on Water Street in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, would show Jerry Lewis movies for a buck. The bowling alley was downstairs from the theater so you’d often hear people rolling strikes and celebrating during the quieter scenes of any film. It didn’t matter much during a Jerry Lewis movie but hearing some guy named Lyman scream “That’s a turkey!” in the middle of “Dr. Zhivago” may have ruined the mood.
But, all of us kids didn’t even notice the noise from downstairs during a laugh-fest like “Hook, Line and Sinker!” For that one, some older men showed up thinking it was about fishing. They left early in the story.
Part of what made the telethon so exciting was the prospect of having Jerry Lewis and his pals in your house for 20-plus hours. I didn’t want to miss a second. So, I’d try to take naps in the days leading up to the show. According to research, you can’t “bank” sleep. But, I didn’t know that.
There was a recliner, covered in brown upholstery, in our living room. Usually, that was Dad’s chair. He’d sit with his ashtray, bowl of peanuts and bridge mix, watching baseball or “All in the Family” or “Ironside.” Whatever was on the tube, that was his spot. Except for the Sunday and Monday of Labor Day weekend. Then, it became mine.
I would hunker down in the seat with M&M’s, Oreos, Cheetos, and a small box of Velveeta. Of course, none of those treats were going to help me stay awake but that was another science fact I didn’t know. For example, they say celery can help you remain alert. But, if anybody thought I’d be caught watching Buddy Hackett, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Lola Falana with a celery stalk in my mouth, think again.
Whenever I’d start to feel drowsy, I would put a cold washrag on my face or ice cubes down my back. Or, smother myself with my brother's Aqua Velva. Sometimes, around 3:00 a.m., while Charlie Callas was trying to spin plates, I’d hear something outside. Probably not a crook. Probably a werewolf. I relied on that fear to keep me up for an hour or so.
Over the years, I heard my fair share of Jerry Lewis yelling “Hey, Ladyyyyy!!” I saw the famous reunion with Dean Martin and, naturally, watched the emotional “You’ll Never Walk Alone” finale.
Inspired by the telethon, I once performed a Jerry Lewis-esque routine as a clumsy busboy for one of my Dad’s meetings.
No wonder my Dad never got that promotion. Coincidentally, when I was born, I was named “Joel” after my Dad’s boss at the time.
My Dad was fired shortly thereafter. I was more Weeble than human.
In 1980, while living in Las Vegas, I saw big chunks of the telethon in person. This is a photo of me from that time. It has nothing to do with the story but I think I look like an extra from a Rockford Files episode, so I am including it.
Seeing the program live, it was fascinating to witness all the behind the scenes hustle and bustle. Ed McMahon worked his tail off the whole time, even during the local breaks. But, frankly, the show was better sitting in that brown upholstered chair with a lap full of Cheetos and M&Ms.
As a kid, I don’t think I ever made it the whole night without dozing off. But, I make up for it now, as an older man. I’m up much of the night. Labor Day or not. But, in honor of the holiday and the memory, I do scream “Hey Ladyyyy!” from time to time.