September 9th, 2009 Heather Kovar
My friend and former colleague, Kevin Van Meter, wrote and sent this as an email to me. He gave me the okay to share with you.
As Labor Day 2009 draws into conclusion as midnight has come and gone, I along with possibly thousands of New Yorkers viewed the annual Labor Day Telefon with long time host Jerry Lewis yesterday.
Of course, we know that it has become an American Tradition.
America gets behind Jerry to help his MDA “Kids.”
Some things have changed over the years since that first telecast on WNEW-TV 5 at the Americana Hotel.
That first year in 1966, Jerry went through the throngs of fans in the audience collecting money carrying buckets. He did it a few times that day.
I remember a big star named Joan Crawford, who was later known from the Faye Dunaway movie, “Mommie Dearest.” While she spoke, she stopped in mid-thought to scold the audience for not being silent. I remember the angry look on her face.
I also remember that first year, WNEW radio personalities Ted Brown appearing and Jim Lowe reading the news… NEWSCASTS during that show on stage.
And before Ed McMahon came on the scene the next year, the announcer that first year was none other than Johnny Olsen, who was best known as the game show announce from “The Price Is Right,” by shouting, “Come On DOWN!!!!”
Jerry recognized that children held the key by collecting lots of money through parties, carnivals and fund raisers.
The “Little People” he called them.
I remember that first year that Jerry was short of time to reach that one million dollar mark. Channel 5 gave him one extra hour.
I remember at the very end of that hour, with time running out, a well-to-do business man wrote out a check to get that tote to one million.
He wrote that check in the audience on the foot of the stage…it was great drama.
The changes over the years…the move to Las Vegas….then to Hollywood and then to Las Vegas again….bigger stars such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, and even his old partner Dean Martin appearing with Davis always being saved until the final two hours to wow the audience.
The cream of entertainment appeared on that show. Even when there was no longer a stage for them on network television, no more interest on musical variety because of cable and changing entertainment values.
Then..one by one, they left…then Jerry’s long time conductor, Lou Brown passed away…his long time MDA lyricist Lil Mattis now gone…even old pro comedians like Norm Crosby, Henny Youngman and co-host Casey Kasem…got old…
Entertainment was changing…but Lewis remained the same…he knew what he knew and he always played to the masses because it was the masses that embraced him.
We always thought Lewis was unsinkable…opinionated, happily childish…angry, emotional and loving. Who had his share of triumphs…his share of tradegies…either personal and physical.
Year after year, we knew that he would be there. Leading America…always saying that we are a good, generous country. Even when it wasn’t fashionable to do so.
After all he has done for MDA…it was only this year the the Academy Awards honored him with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarium Award.
Next year, the Emmys will honor him.
Isn’t it funny…our own government…our government that is supposed to represent the will of the people according to the Constitution..has NEVER even acknowledged Lewis.
They acknowledged Bob Hope…eleven presidents did.
Nothing for Lewis.
Today..to see Lewis…and remember him years eariler….to see him when he was sprightly, bouncing around…prat-falling…to the years of the terrifying weight gain because of steroids to fight pain…to lose the weight at his advanced age.
Not to hear Ed McMahon introduce him at the start of the show was true reality for me and for everyone today.
To see Jerry come out, slouched a little, a lot grayer, walking slowly, the voice now sounding older, the speech patterns now slower and paced to maxium ennounciation to possibly disguise old age slur in the speech… caught everyone’s attention.
But then, the attempts to entertain in the usual Jerry style were honestly, sad for me. “We can’t smile without you…” was a song he always dedicated to his old friend Bob Sampson of Eastern Airlines who had MDA. He latter passed away. He just kept reaching for those big singing notes…and they were hoarse, cracking and at times way off tone.
Lewis had to be reminded several times to keep his mic close to his mouth.
Later, Lewis tried to tap dance while singing a patriotic number in the show.
A stage manager kep shouting…”Tap, Jerry, TAP!” while the other members around him kept their pace. When Lewis was younger, he could call on his 9-year old personna to fake out the situation…not now.
Finally, another patriotic song with a guitar accompiant turned embarrasing….because he couldn’t comprehend the cue-cards….Jerry just gave up. He said off-mic, “My God, I was awful.”
Finally, his closing song, “You Never Walk Alone,” was as tearful for him for the first time in many years.
He really missed McMahon…and leaned on his wife and his daughter throughout the entire show.
Speaking of which, Lewis for the first time, sang to her daughter, Danni…”My Little Girl.”
And a cold thought came into my head…a thought I never thought I would EVER think.
Could it be the last time we see Jerry? He never sang songs for his sons, his first wife Patti and his current wife, Sandee.
Why this song tonight?
I love Jerry Lewis…I always loved his craziness, his brutal honesty, the way he could look into the camera lens and express with the utmost intellegence what needed to be said why his MDA kids needed their help. This intellegence coming from someone who “Couldn’t cut the mustard in school.”
He developed television technology before it was even attempted by BIG networks…sattellite interviews and concerts were pioneered by the Telefon. Networks like CNN, Fox and all three networks commonly use them now.
Like the video-assist Lewis created…he pushed TV technology…in order to help his kids. The public marveled at the time what was being accomplished.
To see Jerry and see the audience at the end of the show reminded me the last concert Groucho Marx gave at Carnegie Hall before he passed away.
The first sone he sang was..”Hello….I Must be Going…” People cheered and laughed, but at the same time it was sad because he soon WAS going.
While the people cheered Jerry today, you could see a sadness in each of their eyes.
What I saw today was a 83 year old man still rallying America to a great cause. Jerry Lewis has won many battles, but there is one battle he was winning for a while…but soon…eventually…we will all lose.
Red Skelton said time is an enemy…a glutton. The trick is top apply it usefully. Lewis has been a master of that.
I DVR’d a lot of the Telefon and reviewed it.
I then deleted it.
Today is not the way I want to remember Jerry Lewis today.
Jerry is America’s last living legendary hero in my eyes…faults and all.
I guess my heart doesn’t want to accept the fact that we are all getting old.
When an entertainer gets old, and hangs on too long just for himeself and the applause, we say “retire, already.”
But for this cause, all I can say…all WE can say…is please God, in your wisdom, we do not know of your plans for all of us.
Dear God above, I love Jerry Lewis and cherish his signed autographed program of “Damn Yankees.”
We do thank you for Jerry Lewis, and everything good and bad that comes from him.
Only you know what the conclusion is.
God bless you, Jerry Lewis.
Kevin Van Meter
Boxing Ring Announcer
New York Daily News Golden Gloves
New York City
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