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Remembering the invention of the telethon
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In the pre-cable TV days when our television choices were limited to a handful of channels, the idea of an around-the-clock entertainment show to benefit a charity was a novel idea.

I remember those early days of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. It was a big deal.

This year marks the first time in five decades the fundraising show will not appear on Labor Day weekend. Lewis has been gone from the show since 2011.

When it first aired, the show marked one of the first times TV stations stayed on all night. TV stations usually signed off about midnight with a minister providing a brief devotional, followed by a film of a military band playing the National Anthem.

This telethon idea was fascinating. I set an alarm clock and got up in the wee hours of the morning to see the cavalcade of entertainers.

Lewis, a Hollywood legend, became the face and voice of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. A child who suffered from the disease was selected as the “poster child” and appeared in photos with Lewis. Eventually, the poster child theme was replaced by naming them “Jerry’s Kids.”

In the early days, the children were window dressing for the show. In later years, the advent of portable videotaping systems took us into their lives and they became stars of the show.

Entertainers were the headliners of the day and included singers, dancers, comedians, magicians and actors. They would perform and then join Lewis on the set for a little banter. Everybody from Frank Sinatra to Elton John appeared on the show.

The centerpiece of the show was the board where the financial total was updated periodically. The sound of the tympani, followed by the orchestra playing “What the World Needs Now is Love,” meant a new and higher total was about to be revealed.

The part of the show that brought a local connection was the cut-ins every hour. In the early days, Channel 5 carried the show and the local portion was hosted by venerable weatherman Guy Sharpe. As the show neared an end, Guy would tear up on the air and folks would light up the phones.

In the era before the gigantic toll-free calling zone in Atlanta, local calling centers were in places such as Gainesville, Athens, Rome, Carrollton and others. The local portion of the show featured mayors, firemen and civic leaders from towns throughout the region. It was big news when someone appeared with Guy to announce the local fundraising results.

In later years, Guy left Channel 5 and Ken Cook replaced him as host. He was joined by radio legend Rhubarb Jones. The show eventually moved to another channel, but Cook and Jones continued to host.

When the telethon began, things like Sunday night or Labor Day football games and other events were not there to get in the way.

Lewis was removed in 2011 from his post as chairman of the association and was yanked as host of the show he created. There may have been reasons, but it wasn’t handled very well.

The association reduced the show from 21 hours to 3 and now, the show is gone.

They said a 21-hour show doesn’t work in world where we communicate with 140 characters on the Internet.

Jerry Lewis raised more than $2 billion for the association. He deserved a better farewell.

 Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.

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