It was officially the last weekend of the summer and we always spent it in Hopatcong. Being the bungalow that it was, Dad had to drain pipes, insulate windows and just generally get the place ready to be left alone and at the mercy of the coming Jersey winter. For much of our childhood, there was no heat in the house, and I remember many Labor Day week ends that were cloudy, cold and rainy. We would bundle up in blankets, drink hot tea and chocolate and play board games and cards with Mom as Dad puttered around. It was also of course a little depressing in that we knew that indeed the Summer was really and truly gone. It seemed like an eternity hung before us until we could come back again.
This was not meant to be a timely submission in any way other than this weekend is the Labor Day holiday, but it turns out to be more timely than I planned. And that is because we, like so many other thousands of households, spent a good part of the Labor Day weekend watching the Jerry Lewis Muscular Distrophy Telethon on television. It came on late Saturday and ended sometime on Monday, the holiday. Hundreds of musical acts, entertainers, and some pretty big names in the business donated their time to be there and make it the success it seemed to be each year. It helped pass the hours on those dreary days when we huddled indoors.
Let’s be real however, a lot of it was very boring from a entertainment point of view. We sat and watched as countless people we didn’t know came on to present a check to Jerry, and while it was of course a generous gesture, it didn’t make for great TV viewing. But then there were the moments when someone like The Four Seasons, or Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis would show up. I guess it was just a tradition, and like all traditions, it wasn’t measured by things like quality or even sincerity; it just was something you did every year, like Thanksgiving dinner or putting up a Christmas tree.
It was what one did on Labor Day weekend, like watching Sixty Minutes every Sunday night.
And I am sure many can remember that one year when somehow Frank had managed to get Dean Martin to come on the show and (supposedly) surprise Jerry Lewis, it being the first time they were in the same room in years. They hadn’t had the most genial of break-ups – to any one who doesn’t know, the comedy team of Martin and Lewis was huge for many years. They were very popular and did live appearances, movies, television, radio – you name it. They made a ton of money for the studios they worked for, and for themselves. I don’t even remember what went wrong but they broke up and didn’t speak to each other for a long time. Until that one Labor Day telethon, when Frank brought Dean out and stood by as the two old friends embraced. It made TV history.
Dean left us years ago, and by coincidence with this posting Jerry went to meet him again just last week. Now I will be honest; I never thought Jerry Lewis was a comedic genius and never understood the French thinking him on par with someone like Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but he did some great straight dramatic roles (check out Funny Bones and The King of Comedy) later in his career, and I learned to appreciate his talent.
And then of course there was the ending of each years broadcast, when he would sing You’ll Never Walk Alone to his “kids”. And every time he would sing that song, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, not ours, not anyones. He had stayed awake for over thirty six hours, had raised millions of dollars each year (which equates to billions when you add up all the years it was one), and he always sang that song. And he would cry too while singing it.
Years later as a wise-ass, drug taking, cynical teenager who thought the show was for old farts like my parents, I would grudgingly watch as of course it was the only thing allowed on the tube. And when he sang that song, like you knew he would, you can guess….I cried again.
Good television? Maybe. Tradition? Definitely. Meaningful? Sometimes. Heart wrenching?….ah that would be a yes.
So (and I never thought I would say this) but Thanks Jerry.
For all you did for your kids, and for being such a part of an annual tradition in my young life.
Say Hi to Dean for me.