by JIM KNIPFEL
June 26, 2016
Back in its heyday, the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon was always one of the highlights of my year, and I tried to watch as much as I could of its twenty-four hour marathon run. Where else were you gonna get a lineup of aging Borscht Belt entertainers like that? And then of course there was the increasingly dangerous and unpredictable Lewis himself. You never knew what he was going to say next, especially during those slow overnight hours.
Apart from the annual Labor Day telethon, when I was a kid Green Bay had a local telethon of its own that was almost as much fun. It aired one weekend every summer, raising tens of thousands of dollars for cerebral palsy research. Like the Jerry Lewis telethon it had a sort-of celebrity emcee and lots of other sort-of celebrity guest stars—actors, singers, musicians—as well as a slew of talented (or at least presumably talented) locals. It, too, ran for twenty-four hours, and broadcast live from the studios of WBAY, the regional CBS affiliate.
The big payoff every year came during the telethon’s waning hours, when in a desperate grab for the last minute cash that would put them over the previous year’s total, they pulled out all the stops and went straight for that guilt and pity jugular. The telethon organizers would round up a bunch of kids with CP, a half dozen or more complete with Cronenbergian leg braces and those strap-on crutches, and force them to hobble about in a circle in front of the cameras, their faces contorted with pain as they tried to smile through the humiliation. The sick, wobbly parade was accompanied every year by a decidedly carnivalesque tune, as a group of singers merrily chirped, “Look at us we’re walking, look at us we’re talking, like we’ve never walked and talked before!” Even when I was seven or eight I always found this mortifying, but couldn’t stop watching.
Back in the early Seventies, when my dad was still in the Air Force, it was part of his annual duties for some reason to work the telethon. He helped set things up beforehand, clean up afterwards, and do assorted odd jobs around the studio in between. The central part of his telethon work, though, involved taking care of the visiting celebrity guests. He was a big, gregarious guy in a uniform, so he was perfect for the job, especially considering he didn’t pay any attention to pop culture and so had no idea who most of these people were. He would pick up the visiting celebrities at the airport, deliver them to the Downtowner hotel, get them to the nearby studio, and later drive them all over the state to make personal appearances at little stores and restaurants where collections for the telethon were being taken. Sometimes he’d let my sister or me come along, just for the fun and glamour of it all, and to help explain afterward why these people were famous.
Since Green Bay wasn’t exactly Vegas and the host never quite on a par with Jerry Lewis, you couldn’t exactly expect the likes of Don Rickles, Jack Jones or Norm Crosby to show up. Not even Charo. Mostly we got local media types (TV weathermen and radio show hosts), football players (from the Packers as well as other teams) and soap stars I never heard of. But every year there were a few notables, usually character actors from long-defunct TV shows who could no longer find any other work. So Festis from Gunsmoke was there once, and Sharri Lewis and Lambchop, and Greg from The Brady Bunch, and the big guy who played Sgt. Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes. That was pretty cool. My sister got to meet him. She also got to meet Johnny Whittaker of Family Affair (and later Sigmund and the Sea Monsters). I got to meet a couple of the less interesting kids from The Waltons, though for some reason my dad didn’t bother to bring either of us along the year Leonard Nimoy was in town.
I sadly remember very little about these early brushes with greatness, except for seeing Barry What’s-His-Name from The Brady Bunch as he first entered the hotel lobby carrying a guitar case. The show had been off the air for years, he was noticeably older and a little haggard, but a bunch of pre-teen girls were waiting for him in the lobby, and the moment he walked in they all shrieked “Greg!” Although he smiled, I recall clearly how his shoulders drooped and the annoyance in his eyes. Most of the other fading celebrities I met made no impression at all. They just seemed bored.
The one thing I do remember clearly though was the 1973 telethon, which was one of those years both my sister and I had to stay home. Thinking back now, it was probably because I either had the mumps or a case of strep. I got strep a lot when I was young, and I guess no one wanted to run the risk of having me infect one of the Walton kids.
High strung game show host Dennis James was the emcee that year, which I thought was pretty impressive. I forget now which game show he hosted, but I know I’d seen it a few times, which to my mind made him probably the biggest emcee they’d ever snagged. (He would be trumped a couple of years later when they brought in Tony Orlando.)
Anyway, it was about five on Saturday, the telethon had been on about ten hours at that point. We knew my dad was at the studio at the time, so my mom, sister and I were sitting around the TV hoping we might catch a passing glimpse of him in the background. Some local singer was onstage in front of the cheap cardboard tote-board, and the locations of the assorted statewide collection points were flashing across the bottom of the screen. When she wrapped up the song, as per usual Dennis James was supposed to return and either announce the next act, a commercial break, or a new total.
Well, god bless live television is all I have to say, because a sweaty and disheveled James came running out onstage, grabbed the mic, and instead of excitedly announcing a new grand total, he shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen—we just got a call, and there’s a BOMB under one of your chairs!”
I thought that was a bit less than tactful, and I wasn’t alone. For just a second you could hear the live studio audience erupt in panicked shrieks. Then the screen went black for an instant before being replaced with a “Please Stand By” card.
My mom, sister and I stared at the screen, wondering if we’d really just heard what we’d heard. Then the question was, did someone pull the plug to get the crazy man off the stage, to prevent viewers at home from witnessing the mad and bloody stampede for the studio’s one small exit, or had the bomb detonated and blown WBAY off the air? And where was my dad in all this?
We flipped through the other stations and snapped on the radio hoping to hear something, anything at all about what was going on, but there was nothing. Then we just waited to get a phone call from my dad letting us know he was okay. There was nothing else we could do.
Hours went by and our panic only grew worse. Who the hell would want to bomb a fucking telethon, except maybe one of those kids who was gonna have to hobble around as some creep sang “Look at us we’re walking”?
At about eight-thirty, the phone finally rang, and we all jumped. We had no idea what to expect when my mom picked it up. It might have been my dad telling us he was okay, or it might have been a cop or hospital telling us otherwise. Fortunately it was the former. After dragging and carrying dozens of shrieking, flailing, or nearly catatonic audience members outside to safety, he’d spent the last few hours conducting a thorough search of the studio for anything resembling a bomb. Of course there was nothing under any of the folding chairs he’d set up the day before. In fact there was nothing anywhere. But that was it for that year’s telethon. On the bright side, at least the next year it was going to be much easier to top that year’s total. On the downside, though, it also meant I’d have to wait another year to see the annual musical cripple parade.
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