Lamentable Highlights From America’s Favorite Telethon

BEVERLY HILTON INTERNATIONAL BALLROOM, BEVERLY HILLS. SUNDAY, 6:00–6:14 P.M.: Officials provide me with press credentials and escort me from the media-relations room, down the long hallway to the bar, then down the ramp to the throngs and the metal detectors and the majestic doors into the International Ballroom, where 17,500 square feet of corporate-style banquet/reception roomery has been converted, via the theatrical partitioning of darkened and lightened spaces, into a television studio. Onstage, beside the podium, there’s an enormous Al Hirschfeld caricature of Jerry Lewis as he appeared in the early 1960s. Beside the Hirschfeld, actual Jerry Lewis, 40 years his iconic caricature’s senior, is doing welcome-shtick for the overdressed studio audience and hopefully a few million viewers at home.

I make my way around the periphery of the affair, past two covered grand pianos, oodles of cables and production equipment and personnel.

6:15–6:45 P.M.: This is Jerry Lewis’ 40th Labor Day telethon to raise money for muscular dystrophy — a general term applied to a certain group of degenerative muscular disorders — and he’s quite good at it. His voice still rings firm and proud, 98 percent baritone drama, 2 percent HEY LAYDEE!! This year’s telethon is also helping collect donations for the Salvation Army to provide hurricane relief, which is awfully nice. We might also consider getting ourselves a federal government to take care of such things. I hear that those can sometimes come in real handy.

“Barry Manilow!” says Jerry Lewis.

Prowling around backstage, I run into a security officer named Heidi. Beside Heidi is an A/V rack with a monitor, and on the monitor, at eye level, is now Barry Manilow on a live feed from Las Vegas. I suggest to Heidi that while Manilow was once almost identical to Streisand, his most recent work has rendered him decidedly more feminine.

Heidi says, “Yeah, but it works.” Well, fair enough.

Comedic entity Norm Crosby, who’s been standing behind us for three minutes in full makeup and tuxedo, says of Manilow, “No one works it like him.”

Heidi and I nod.

“Norm Crosby!” says Jerry Lewis.

Crosby takes the stage, Heidi wanders off one way and I the other.

“Alexander Graham Bell,” says Crosby. “And his wife, Tinker . . .”

The crowd goes nutz, in its own severely repressed way.

Crosby eventually yields to a fragile-looking Ed McMahon, far stage left. It’s McMahon’s 38th telethon. “During the next 20 hours,” he booms, “we will present the best that the entertainment world has to offer!”

7:31 P.M.–10:29 P.M.: Usually, sponsors of the best that the entertainment world has to offer also offer free grub to participants and press, or at least free coffee. But not here. Not yet. Having not eaten anything today, I take a short break for microscopic crab cakes, red wine and coffee at Griff’s Café downstairs. And return to a considerably thinned-out ballroom crowd. Where’d everyone go?

I take a seat. And another. And another. It’s fun to change seats, especially when the view from each one is the back of a chuckling white man’s head, and each white man sits beside a white woman with a painted face, and they look at each other to find out whether or not anything Mr. Lewis says is funny, and it always is.

“Jack Jones, ladies and gentlemen!” says Lewis. The white heads laugh. Until they realize Jones is a singer.

Jones renders Bock’s “She Loves Me” and Rodgers & Hart’s “Bewitched” with the polish and sensitivity for which he’s known to those who know him. And when he’s done, Citgo Petroleum’s president and CEO takes the stage, says good things about Citgo and bad things about muscular dystrophy and hands Lewis a check for $2 million.

Crowd goes nutz. I go outside. There I hear rumors that a cafeteria-style spread has been set up downstairs, one room over from where I just maxed out my credit card on a crab cake.

Yes. Free food and coffee, and video monitors, so that everyone can congratulate themselves for having the sense to duck out of the ballroom before being subjected to the peppy cast of Something performing zany attack-disco: “Stayin’ Alive.”

Better entertainment down here: At the next table, an ancient gentleman with jet-black hair, possible offspring of Joe Pesci and Rupert Pupkin, spouts Oblique Tales from Back in the Day, at Bronx volume: “Disguysez nuttin! Know what I mean? Nuttin’s all he sez! But even nuttin’s more interesting dan whuh-d’yUDDAguysez! Know what I mean? Disguysez, ‘Lemme tell you what I’m sayin’!’ So Jerry an’ me, we just get in the limo and head down to Atlantic City! Know what I mean?”

I don’t know what he means. So I leave. Back in the ballroom, Robert Goulet’s onstage, gouleting spectators with “The Impossible Dream.” Crowd? Nutz.

10:30–11:30 P.M.: Ten-thirty? Shit! I rush home to catch The Daily Show, only to realize, upon my arrival, that it’s Sunday. God damn it.

So I tune in to the telethon broadcast on Channel 9. There’s a different set, with different people. Someone named Paul wearing what appears to be a Hasidic lumberjack hat. I set an alarm for midnight, figuring I’ll make it back to the hotel by 1 a.m.

11:31 P.M.–2:45 P.M.: I sleep through the alarm and the night and the morning, rush back to the hotel and arrive to find a 12-year-old boy talking onstage.

“I believe God has put me in a wheelchair for many reasons,” says Luke Christie, who hopes to grow up and become a novelist, theatrical director, pastor and small-town restaurant proprietor. With plenty of tragic death and terminal illness in my own family, it’s not as hard for me to imagine what Luke and his family are going through as it is to imagine this bullying God of his, a God who apparently spends time conjuring reasons to put children in wheelchairs. As if Luke doesn’t have enough problems.

But everyone claps and cheers for Luke and Jerry and God.

Barry Manilow reappears, live from Vegas. Some members of the congregation say Ooo! and cheer as they recognize the opening strains of Manilow’s seminal “I Write the Songs,” a song about one man making more money writing sappy songs about writing sappy songs than a whole country will spend on medical research and hurricane victims. Like Crosby said — no one works it like Barry.

“All right, everybody!” Ed McMahon barks, front and center. “We’re heading into the final hour! Let me hear your best HI-OH! Ready? HI-OHHH!”

“HI-OHHH!” says the audience.

Jeni Stepanek, mother of four children killed by neuromuscular diseases, delivers the event’s most beautiful, humane words, starkly devoid of show-biz artifice and simplistic moralizings. Can you imagine? And as the International Association of Firefighters presents a final check for $21 million, confetti explodes through the crowd, frightening many toward incontinence. The tote board rolls up to $54,921,586 and we all shout and cheer and praise the Lord as Jerry furls his brow and power-croons us home with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s tradition telethon-closer, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”:

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone

The white people look at each other and cry, and sigh, and smile and walk out.