He gives children hope, Charo airtime
This weekend, as he has on every Labor Day weekend since 1966, Jerry Lewis will host the Muscular Dystrophy Association's annual telethon. It's not only a show that benefits a very worthy charity, it may well be the biggest and most successful installation of performance art in the world.
Full of unintentionally bad singers, comedians and ventriloquists and jam-packed with ardent pleas for the cash of its viewers, the telethon is one of the most surreal broadcasts you'll ever see. Add in a cast of B-list celebs who show up nowhere else — Norm Crosby, Charo and Glen Campbell are just a few — and you have the recipe for a pop-culture train wreck that is as captivating as it is horrifying.
I'm not criticizing the telethon; far from it. Each year, it gives tens of millions of dollars to researchers seeking cures for some of the most horrible diseases known to man. It helps out the victims of these cruel ailments, most of whom are children. It's a very noble cause and one worthy of support.
Last year, the telethon raised more than $61 million. Since 1966, the total is close to $2 billion. It's money that made an impact on the lives of children in Indiana and every other state. And, perhaps most importantly, it's raised awareness about muscular dystrophy in the minds of hundreds of millions of Americans.
But that doesn't mean that you can't enjoy the telethon for what it is: a home for the has-beens, never-wases and wannabes of popular entertainment. It's a showcase of kitschy magicians, terrible tap-dancers and nervous, overweight PR people from the biggest corporations in our nation.
Due to failing health, Lewis now hosts only the first few and last few hours of the 22-hour telethon. Although completely understandable, given the fact that Lewis is now 81, it diminishes the pleasure considerably.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, Lewis would host the show through the night, getting more and more incoherent with each passing hour. Fueled by coffee and who knows what else, he'd launch into endless monologues that usually descended into pure gibberish of made-up words.
Once upon a time, the telethon featured the most famous names of show business. Frank Sinatra was an annual guest, closing the show with a long concert. Sammy Davis Jr. also performed a mini-concert. Even John Lennon and Yoko Ono showed up one year.
Most of the great names who were once mainstays of the show have passed away. So Jerry is stuck with no-name Vegas acts and cameos from a few current stars. To tell the truth, it's more fun to watch the crappy acts than it was the performances of superstars.
Charo is a Spanish-born singer and actress whose heyday was the early 1970s, when she appeared on programs such as Laugh-In and the Donny and Marie Show. Her act consists of playing flamenco guitar, shaking her ample bosom and singing songs consisting of double entendres. It hasn't changed much since the ’70s.
It was pretty sexy stuff for the ’70s, and Charo was then known as a sex symbol. Now that she's 66 years old, it's positively horrifying. It's like watching your grandmother don a wig and a low-cut sequined gown and shake her breasts for millions of TV viewers.
She doesn't get much TV time these days but she's one of the biggest stars in the Jerry Lewis telethon constellation. In this day and age, very few things on TV can make you sit up and say wow. One of them is the annual spectacle of Charo bending over in front of the camera, making google eyes as her cleavage is exposed and then screaming Spanish lyrics into the mic.
Who's on tap for this year's telethon? According to the MDA, Celine Dion, Montgomery Gentry, Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Tony Danza, Ivanka Trump, John Madden, Vanessa L. Williams, Michael Urie, Ace Young, Bear in the Big Blue House, Commodores, George Wallace, John Tesh, Lance Burton, Louie Anderson, Maureen McGovern, Ronn Lucas and the casts of Grease and Legally Blonde.
Wow. Simply wow. How could any show ask for more? Have you even heard of more than two or three of those stars? That's what makes the telethon so great.
Along the way, there are very serious segments about the nine primary diseases that fall under the category of muscular dystrophy. These progressive and incurable diseases attack the bodies of children, causing paralysis and early death in many cases. Its victims grow weaker and weaker, yet the children seem to get more and more courageous as they face death.
Every year, I watch the telethon, laugh at the bad performances, marvel at the heroic kids and give a few bucks to the charity.
And every year, I hope that there'll never be another Jerry Lewis telethon because a cure will be found. Open up your heart and your pocketbooks for these amazing children. And, Lord willing, Charo will never have to shake her boobs on TV again.