In June 1950, Paul Cohen, a prominent New York business leader living with a form of muscular dystrophy, invited a group of individuals to meet in his Rye, N.Y., office. Each had a personal connection to muscular dystrophy, and the gathering focused on the urgent need to raise funds to advance research seeking treatments and cures for muscular dystrophy. The group — so vested in the fight against neuromuscular diseases — formed the organization that became the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). That year, MDA’s first research grant for $1,500 was awarded to muscle disease pioneer Ade. T. Milhorat, M.D.
One of Cohen’s first goals was to recruit celebrities who could help promote the young Association to the American public. Cohen met with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to urge them to become champions for the cause. They agreed.
Thanks to Cohen’s persuasiveness, on Dec. 28, 1951, Martin and Lewis concluded their popular NBC network television show with a special appeal to support muscular dystrophy research.
Expanding the reach of their initial televised appeal, the comedy team of Martin and Lewis made a second national appeal during its Jan. 4, 1952, network radio program. Later that year, Martin and Lewis were named MDA National Co-Chairmen.
Early to recognize the power of television to bolster awareness and raise income for the Association, Cohen’s pioneering fundraising priority was to establish local telethons featuring a variety of stars. Thanks to early hosting commitments from top stars, including Robert Alda, Dick Van Dyke, Captain Video and Virginia Graham, MDA successfully broadcast five local telethons in two years:
In the early 1950s, several important sponsors became long-standing allies of MDA, including the Tall Cedars of Lebanon of North America, the National Association of Letter Carriers and the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The NALC quickly established a nationwide door-to-door campaign for MDA and continues to support MDA as a national sponsor today. The inaugural door-to-door campaign was heralded by a special two-hour, coast-to-coast television show hosted by Martin and Lewis called “Television Party for Muscular Dystrophy Honoring the Letter Carriers of America for Their Volunteer March for Mercy.”
In the same time frame, a group of families affected by muscular dystrophy approached Local 718 fire station in Boston to ask professional fire fighters to help fight muscular dystrophy. Responding enthusiastically, the fire fighters took to the streets with their boots in hand to ask greater Boston to make donations that would be used to fight muscular dystrophy.
The Fill the Boot campaign was an instant success, with the IAFF membership passing a resolution to support MDA's fight against muscular dystrophy until treatments and cures are found. To this day, IAFF continues its tradition as the No. 1 fundraising organization for MDA. IAFF celebrated its 60th anniversary as an MDA partner in 2014, raising $26.8 million that year.
Martin and Lewis co-hosted the 1956 telethon originating from New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall. “The Martin and Lewis Roundup” was broadcast June 29-30. On July 25, 1956, the 10th anniversary of their initial teaming, Martin and Lewis ended their celebrated partnership in one of the most famous breakups in show business history.
After the successful 1956 telethon, Lewis was named the organization’s National Chairman, a voluntary position he would hold for 55 years.
Thanksgivings 1957 and 1959 brought the first two telethons hosted by Lewis. But because of Lewis’ film commitments, he didn’t host another telethon until 1966.
The first MDA Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon was broadcast in 1966 by a single station in New York (WNEW-TV). The telecast was so successful that MDA selected Labor Day weekend for all future telethons. Then, with help from broadcasting icons Sylvester “Pat” Weaver and Robert M. Bennett, the Association created a “Love Network” of stations that in 1971 facilitated the nation’s first networked telethon.
Over the decades, the legendary Labor Day broadcast originated from different locations including New York, Las Vegas and Hollywood. Since 1966, the MDA Labor Day Telethon has had a variety of names, including the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, “The” Telethon, Stars Across America! and most recently the MDA Show of Strength Telethon.
The most successful fundraising event in the history of television, the show, with Lewis as its iconic host and with help from a legion of top celebrities and entertainers, raised nearly $2 billion over the years.
Thanks to unwavering public support of MDA's research and services programs through the telethon, pledges and other fundraising efforts, MDA became the first nonprofit organization to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Medical Association “for significant and lasting contributions to the health and welfare of humanity.”
Each year’s telethon success reflects amazing grassroots support of telethon-related special events nationwide, as well as direct marketing initiatives; sponsor-driven fundraising activities; and pledges and contributions made to MDA by phone (1-800-FIGHT-MD), text (“MDA” to 50555)* and online donations at mda.org during the broadcast.
The telethon has consistently enjoyed robust support from the biggest stars in show business. Over the years, countless megastars have appeared on the telethon to help families affected by muscular dystrophy. Many were introduced by the late Ed McMahon, who, starting in 1968, served as telethon anchor for 40 years.
When it comes to memorable moments from the nearly 1,000 hours of live television broadcast during MDA Labor Day Telethons, the surprise 1976 Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis reunion organized by Frank Sinatra still tops a truly incredible list of unforgettable television highlights.
Thousands of the biggest names in show business have appeared on the telethon, including: Alan Alda, Jason Alexander, Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Carol Burnett, Richard Burton, Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, Bill Cosby, Billy Crystal, Doris Day, Robert DeNiro, Patty Duke, Jimmy Fallon, Don Francisco of “Sabado Gigante,” Jackie Gleason, Whoopi Goldberg, Woody Harrelson, Neil Patrick Harris, Larry King, Burt Lancaster, Jack Lemmon, Howie Mandel, Dr. Phil McGraw, Eddie Murphy, Bob Newhart, Paul Newman, Rosie O’Donnell, Gregory Peck, Regis Philbin, Ray Romano, Mickey Rooney, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, William Shatner, Martin Short, Ed Sullivan, Barbara Walters, Betty White, Robin Williams and Oprah Winfrey.
Consider musical acts, too, and it’s easy to see why the telethon is so much a part of Americana. The telethon audience has enjoyed thousands of hit performances by a diverse range of artists, including: Alabama, Count Basie, The Bee Gees, Tony Bennett, Clint Black, Jon Bon Jovi, Garth Brooks, Mariah Carey, Ray Charles, Cher, Kenny Chesney, Chicago, Phil Collins, The Commodores, Perry Como, Sammy Davis Jr., Gloria Estefan, Aretha Franklin, Josh Groban, Faith Hill, Enrique Iglesias, Julio Iglesias, Alan Jackson, The Jackson 5, Billy Joel, Elton John, Quincy Jones, Tom Jones, KISS, Eartha Kitt, Cyndi Lauper, John Lennon, Tracy Lawrence, Paul McCartney, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Oak Ridge Boys, Donny and Marie Osmond, Dolly Parton, Tom Petty, Queen, Debbie Reynolds, LeAnn Rimes, Kid Rock, Kenny Rogers, Carlos Santana, Spice Girls, Ringo Starr, Rolling Stones, Sugarland, Randy Travis, Tina Turner, Eddie Van Halen, Clay Walker, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder and Wynonna. Even the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, performed on the MDA Telethon.
In recent years, when the telethon took on a shorter format and a new name as the MDA Show of Strength, more stars came out to show their support for MDA families, including Paula Abdul, American Authors, Backstreet Boys, Luke Bryan, Carole King, Kenny Loggins, Bret Michaels, Pitbull, Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker, Ryan Seacrest, Carrie Underwood, will.i.am. and many others.
Alongside the great entertainment, some of the most riveting telethon moments have come from unsung heroes taking the stage. From MDA National Goodwill Ambassadors, including Ben Teraberry, Mike Neufeldt, Kelly Mahoney, Ben Cumbo, Sarah Schwegel, Mattie Stepanek, Luke Christie, Abbey Umali, Bryson Foster and Reagan Imhoff; to other families sharing how MDA makes concrete differences in their lives; to MDA-funded researchers and clinicians describing why public support of MDA and the telethon is so vital. A big part of the telethon’s success was letting people speak from the heart about the importance of the fight against muscular dystrophy and related diseases.
On May 16, 2011, Jerry Lewis announced that he was retiring as host of the annual MDA Labor Day Telethon.
MDA will be forever grateful to Jerry Lewis, a world-class humanitarian, for his indefatigable and inspiring work in behalf of people with neuromuscular diseases, and for the countless dollars his commitment helped raise for critical research and services.
In 2011 when Jerry Lewis retired, the telethon had been an annual family viewing tradition since 1966. It had succeeded in winning the hearts of the American public, who time and again responded to MDA’s call for support of its mission to save and improve lives of children and adults fighting muscle disease. But over the decades, the broadcast industry evolved, bringing major changes in demographics and viewer habits, as well as rising production costs for live televised events.
The telethon needed to evolve too, and did so in 2011, reducing the mammoth 21½-hour length to a more viewer friendly six-hour format. The following year, the show was streamlined further as a three-hour prime-time broadcast special that included performances and celebrity appearances from Hollywood, Nashville and New York. It also proudly featured a new name, the MDA Show of Strength Telethon.
In 2013 and 2014, the MDA Show of Strength Telethon became a two-hour entertainment-packed event carried exclusively on the ABC Television Network. The Show of Strength conveyed the same message of hope and progress as always while reaching out to younger viewers and supporters to strengthen MDA’s mission going forward.
Throughout changing times, the MDA telethon remained true to its philosophy of combining outstanding entertainment with an inspiring humanitarian message, never wavering from its goal to seek lifesaving solutions for the children and adults MDA serves.
On May 1, 2015, MDA announced, after careful consideration and analysis, to discontinue producing and broadcasting the MDA telethon. The organization thanked and recognized all the supporters who made the telethon possible since its first broadcast in 1956. MDA underscored its commitment to help kids and adults in hometowns across America live longer and grow stronger as it connects with today’s supporters in fresh ways in its urgent pursuit of treatments and cures.