The telethon was a relic from a different age, a tuxedoed Lewis oozing show biz schmaltz and hosting stars from Frank Sinatra to Jennifer Lopez over 45 years, pushing through his exhaustion to sing "You'll Never Walk Alone" as a tote board rang up millions of dollars in donations.
MDA said Friday that "the new realities of television viewing and philanthropic giving" make it the right time to end the annual event, memorably hosted for most of its life by Jerry Lewis.
"The decision to end our beloved telethon was not made lightly," said Steven M. Derks, MDA president and chief executive officer. "In the last few years, the show was adjusted to reflect changes in viewership and donor patterns, and last summer's Ice Bucket Challenge once again affirmed for us that today's families, donors and sponsors are looking to us for new, creative and organic ways to support our mission."
Celebrities including Frank Sinatra, John Lennon and Michael Jackson to Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez have performed on the telethon, first hosted by Lewis and Dean Martin in 1956. It moved to Labor Day in 1966.
"America's fire fighters have stood shoulder to shoulder with MDA for more than 60 years, and together we're changing with the times," said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the single-largest MDA supporter that contributed $26.8 million in 2014. "The kids and families MDA helps have always been our heroes, and we're not stopping until we find cures."
The telethon ran 21 and a half hours in 2010, Lewis' last year as host, and had dwindled to a two-hour show the last two years.
"It's not a 21-hour world anymore," said Steve Ford, MDA executive vice president, on Friday.
With television time costly, the MDA's fundraising efforts will move primarily online, he said. The success of a viral event like "The Ice Bucket Challenge" proves this is a potent area for philanthropy, he said.
"The real heroes have always been our families, and what we need to do is make sure that every dollar we raise is spent working for our families," added Ford.
The Labor Day tote board hit a record of $65 million in 2008, a figure Ford said reflected a full year's worth of fundraising activities capped off by the telethon. The MDA says the telethon itself has been responsible for more than $2 billion in giving.
Lewis' abrupt exit, announced by the MDA a month before the 2011 telethon, was never fully explained. There was no immediate comment on Friday's announcement from the 89-year-old comedian's spokeswoman.
His history with the charity goes back nearly to its beginning: the MDA was started in 1950 and, a year later, Lewis and his comic partner Dean Martin mentioned the charity on their NBC show. The two comics hosted a 1956 telethon before breaking up. Lewis began hosting it regularly in 1966, starting on a single television station in New York.
The telethon was not without controversy; in the early 1990s it was picketed by a handful of disabled people who said people with the disease were being made objects of pity by Lewis in order to raise money.
Yet his roster through the years represented a who's who of entertainment, including a post-Beatles John Lennon, Michael Jackson singing with and without his brothers, Liberace, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Celine Dion. Former Johnny Carson sidekick Ed McMahon filled the same role with Lewis on Labor Day for many years.
In 1976, Sinatra engineered a reunion of Lewis with Martin, his estranged former partner.
With years of telethon tapes, the MDA has the equivalent of years of show biz gold in its vaults. Ford said the MDA has been discussing with Lewis ways to release some of this archived material.
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