by Tom Shales

 excerpt from "The Washington Post" on September 03, 2003

Every year on the Jerry Lewis telethon, America sees a parade of sick children whom only the coldest hearts could resist. But on this year's program, one of the most poignant figures was Lewis himself. Steroid drugs that the 77-year-old Lewis must take for a lung condition have shockingly increased his weight by 50 pounds or more. The slender, limber, crazy kid who became a comic icon in the 1950s has become a strangely inflated version of himself.

The added weight clearly places burdens on Lewis's abilities to move and even to breathe, but he held forth nevertheless on Labor Day, clearly seeing it as his sacred duty. Though he took several hours off in the middle of the 21-hour telethon, he hosted the opening and closing hours of the program himself, and with only slightly subdued manic energy. In the process, he raised a little more than $60 million for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and its fight against neuromuscular diseases.

I wasn't able to watch all of the telethon and never am, but I saw several hours of Lewis and never heard any self-pity or complaints about his own condition. All his attention was directed toward the mission at hand. Sidekick Ed McMahon, who by this time looks as if he is held together with cellophane tape and staples, used the corny old line "There's more of you to love" to Lewis near the start of the show Sunday night, and Don Rickles, as only he could, at one point referred to Lewis as a "Jew whale" and said the added weight was "a good gimmick," and Lewis laughed broadly. "Humanitarian" is one of many recklessly abused words in show business. When the TV academy launched a new "humanitarian" award last year, it named it in honor of Bob Hope, most of whose trips entertaining the military were turned into profitable TV specials, and gave it to Oprah Winfrey, who apparently has been very generous to various charities. Does she qualify as a "humanitarian"? If she does, then Jerry Lewis certainly does. If anybody in show business does, Jerry Lewis does.

Lewis still gets little respect from the American snobocracy, the cultural elite. He has not been given such overdue awards as a Kennedy Center Honor; he doesn't fit the profile of the typical honoree. Lewis gets little respect, but he brings in $60 million for medical research.

He could never be accused of having a shrunken ego, of course, or exquisitely good manners, either; on occasion during the telethon he would reprimand the orchestra conductor or a member of his staff, which seems awfully bad form. But heck, he's a clown, one of the greatest American-born clowns ever, and clowns are given to the broad, buffoonish gesture. The added weight, the medication and the illness make Lewis twitch sometimes, and grimace, and blink. But he battled his way through to the end -- "heroically" hardly seems too strong a word -- and when he sang his traditional finale, "You'll Never Walk Alone," it was literally breathtaking for him and figuratively breathtaking for those of us watching in amazed admiration.

One had to be thinking, inevitably, that from now on, each telethon could be his last. The show itself was another triumphantly campy pageant -- comics, magicians, cheerleaders, tap dancers, impressionists, Vegas-style singers in shiny tuxedos, even "the Dancing Dads of Peoria, Ariz." One could feel truly teleported in time, as if show business had been stopped and frozen in 1962. Out from the wings they came -- all the performers, minor and major, who wait in the wings for what we used to consider "entertainment" to make a comeback. And once a year, on Labor Day, it does.

There is also, inevitably, the "they're still alive" factor. Patti Page? Still alive! She sang "Child of Mine" on the telethon. Julius La Rosa is still alive; he sang "I've Got a Crush on You." Also Steve Lawrence and Nancy Sinatra. Tony Orlando is still alive and seemed to be singing "Purple Rain"; could it have been the title song of the artist formerly known as Prince's movie? It was unrecognizable but vigorously rendered.

Not particularly well but very, very contagiously, veteran character actor Fyvush Finkel sang and danced "To Life!" from "Fiddler on the Roof." Finkel is more than still alive. Somewhere through the early-morning blur, I think I saw a violinist rapidly playing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" on her fiddle. She may have been on roller skates; it's hard to recall.

"Show people are incredible people," Jerry Lewis said. "I'm very proud to be one of them." There was in the air a bit of "Broadway Danny Rose," the movie in which Woody Allen played the hard-luck manager of a collection of oddball acts. Vaudeville rises from the grave, sparkling and glistening and shimmering in the light.

The most memorable guest, however, is not in show business. Near the open and the close of the telecast, Lewis spoke by satellite with the phenomenal Mattie Stepanek, the 13-year-old poet who is MDA's National Goodwill Ambassador and appears indeed to be goodwill personified. Ebullient and articulate, he expressed what had to be a genuine affection for Lewis and what he has accomplished.

Mattie has accomplished quite a bit, too. Though he suffers from mitochondrial myopathy, a genetic muscle-weakening disease that affects his heart rate and breathing (and has already taken the lives of two brothers and a sister), the young man from Upper Marlboro has written five books of best-selling poetry, each with the word "heartsongs" in the title. His dauntless smile on the telethon was inescapably inspiring. You could not be unmoved.

It doesn't matter that some, even many, of the showbiz acts on the telethon are mediocre, and it certainly doesn't matter that some seem to be from another time (in many cases, a better time). What really matters is how hard they're trying to be good for Jerry and his "kids." This year's Jerry Lewis telethon, the 38th, was one of the greatest shows on Earth, and one of America's greatest showmen was the guy who breathed life into it, even when it appeared he had very little breath to spare.


 This tribute was brought to our attention by a devoted Dean Martin fan.