In 1966, the first-ever Jerry Lewis Telethon to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Associations of America was broadcast from a single station, WNEW-TV in New York City. This broadcast, shown only in the New York area, was the revival of similar, locally broadcast MDA Telethons that had taken place in the late 1950s — for example, the 1957 Jerry Lewis Thanksgiving Party that raised $700,000 for MDA in New York.
That’s right - the King of Comedy himself - in the 1950's took on the cause along with Mr. Martin (The Taller Italian One) and began telethons on 1 station in New York. However, in those days - the word Telethon was unheard of - so they were basically concerts or parties with a cause in mind. New York's Channel 5 then named WNEW which is now owned by Fox would donate a few hours. Channel 7 in NY - WABC also donated their hours in the 50's. Jerry would travel the country doing Telethons in major cities and continued doing so until 1964, building an audience and educating them on the cause. In the mid-1960s, Robert Ross, MDA’s longtime President & CEO (then its Executive Director), convinced then-MDA President Paul Cohen that a Telethon was needed to increase MDA’s visibility in the New York area.
Bob also had to get Jerry Lewis to agree to be it’s host and star. Jerry’s popularity was skyrocketing at the time, and he’d already become well entrenched in the fight against neuromuscular diseases for more than 15 years. Once he signed on, a bevy of top stars followed to be part of the unique, 19-hour fund-raising show.
However, only Labor Day weekend was available for the broadcast. At first, New York City officials balked at issuing the fund-raising permit, thinking it would be disastrous for MDA because most folks would be away for the holiday weekend. But with Bob’s urging, the permit was finally granted, and the 1966 show did go on. The “Jerry Lewis Telethon” ran 19 hours, was broadcast by the sole WNEW station in New York City and turned out to be the first televised fund-raising event of its kind. From the Americana Hotel in New York, a talk show set was used, with a desk for Jerry and a seating area, a stage for the 19 piece jazz band, phone banks and a toatboard. Jerry had to climb a ladder to paint a 1 on the board that finally read $1,002,114.
Responsible for the inception and for that first Jerry Lewis Telethon being put on the air is 1 man – he was the General Manager of WNYW. Larry Fraberg was known as the Father of the Jerry Lewis Telethon. He was the only one who had the courage to put on this type of show for that length of time. After the success of the 1966 Telethon, other stations began to pay attention to not only the entertainment, but the cause of the entertainment.
The 1967 show was another winner, bringing in $1.4 million. Emboldened by that success, Ross decided to leap another never-before-surmounted hurdle, and take the Telethon to a bigger audience by networking the show to multiple stations. First, however, Ross had to get permission from the Theater Authority — the organization that represents talent unions whose approval is required before members can contribute their services for free.
Eventually, Bob got the Theater Authority’s approval, and the 1968 show was broadcast from WNEW-TV over a mini-network that included WHEC-TV in Rochester, N.Y., WGR-TV in Buffalo, N.Y., WTEV-TV in Providence, R.I., and WKGB-TV in Boston. That year – the local cutaway was born. How? Read on…
In 1968 one of the milestones for the Telethon and the "Love Network" occurred when Ross noticed that WHEC-TV in Rochester had substantially higher proceeds than the other stations. He looked into what happened. "Well," Station Manager Glover Delaney said, "we cut away from the national broadcast for a few minutes and showed people here volunteering, taking calls…" Just like that, the local cutaway was born.
The cutaways to local Telethon pledge centers or special events proved to be a crucial ingredient in the "Love Network" recipe.
Along with a talent-packed live show, the cutaways enabled stations to interview local MDA clients about the help they receive from MDA, and to highlight local celebrities, volunteers and sponsors. Showing how MDA works in the community really made the phones ring and pledges pour in.
"I think the marriage of a national show with a local community is very important," said Olin Morris, a member of MDA’s Board of Directors, who broadcast the Telethon on WREG-TV in Memphis, Tenn., for 25 years.
Morris, who also worked at a "Love Network" station in Fort Smith, Ark., is now retired from his role as vice president of the New York Times Broadcasting Group, which has owned several "Love Network" stations. "It makes the whole country feel close together, and I think that is highly important," Morris said.
Weinberg recalled a fitting comment made by the late Jack Harris, former MDA Board member and general manager/president of KPRC-TV in Houston.
Harris told him, "On Labor Day a miracle happened. The whole city was unified, working together for MDA.… It’s great for the community, it’s great for the station and it’s great for MDA."
It wasn’t long before the combination of great ratings and the public service aspect of the Telethon began to attract more interest from viewers and the television industry alike.
"The public liked it, because there was nothing on TV like it," Ross said.
TV station managers also liked the opportunity to showcase their anchors and news staff in a different light, and to elicit immeasurable goodwill from their communities. The live format of the show was also an exciting and fun opportunity.
The "Love Network" grew rapidly. Many stations were attracted by the benefits that hosting a localized network Telethon could bring. In 1969, the network stretched farther in all directions from the Big Apple with the addition of cities like Manchester, N.H., Norfolk, Va., and Detroit. This was also the first year that Ed McMahon began his famous predictions which were right on - every year. Case in point - Ed's prediction was $2,100,000 - The final toatboard figure was $2,039,139.
A year later, the network looked to add the Los Angeles market to its 64-station list. But in order for this to happen, Bob again had to appeal to the Theater Authority. This time, he had to convince the organization to end its long-standing ban on nationwide telethons.
He succeeded, and the MDA Telethon went coast-to-coast in 1970. It was the First Telethon to be aired Coast to Coast and it more than doubled the previous amount raised. Ed's prediction $5,200,000 - Final toatboard figure: $5,093,385.
By 1972, the network had 140 stations, and added 10 more the next year. 1973 was the first show at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. A completely different set was built. No desk for Jerry - now he and Ed have matching podiums, a gigantic blue toatboard with blinking lights, a stage with a 34 piece orchestra, phone banks on the right of the toatboard - absolutely beautiful. Ed predicted that the toatboard would not be able to handle the $12,200,000 - so he said he'd find paint so that Jerry could redo his 1966 paint job. He did - and Jerry did it again - he painted a famous 1 on that Helbros toatboard that read $12,395,973 at the end of the show. Amazingly enough, they collected almost $13,500,000. An amazing 175 stations joined forces for the 1974 show, and one year later, the total was pushing 200. Eventually, the "Love Network" had a station in every television market.
Yes, by 1975, the Nielsen ratings for the entire year covering one event or happening were as follows: The Oscars (1st), The Super Bowl (2nd), and in 3rd place - The Jerry Lewis Telethon. This was helped by the fact that Frank Sinatra did 3 mini-concerts live via satellite in New York. The toatboard went from blue to bright red with lights everywhere. The numbers climbed again to $18,868,499 - to match Ed's prediction of $18,700,000.
1976 - The Love Network grew to 213 stations, an excellent show - where Sinatra came back in Vegas - but He figured out how to top the 3 concerts he did the previous year - He thought of the now famous reunion – Dean Martin & Mr. Lewis.. What else can be said? $21,723,813 was raised. Ed's prediction was $21,900,000.
In 1977, the Telethon began more organized. With more patient interviews and more entertainers than before. Also, the famous "I Hate People" spot was redone and directed by Jerry. Ed's prediction became the talk of the end of the media - as he missed the $26,841,490 by only $27,000.
1978 was a great show - it was the last show with the original Las Vegas set. Sammy Davis Jr. made his return to the telethon after 5 years. The numbers pledged were $29,074,405. Ed's prediction was off this year - but in the long run - it was right not bad - he predicted $32,800,000, and $32,440,000 was collected.
1979 was a different show - Jerry did different characters, some from his movies, some from his nightclub act, it was wonderful. The set had changed – the Sahara hotel was in the middle of a few changes during the show – so the moving orchestra was once again static and the toatboard lost some of it’s lights and gained some neon ones. Sammy & Jerry closed the show singing and dancing together to the tune of $30,075,227.