MDA Labor Day Telethon History

Founded by families: MDA’s focus is resolute

In June 1950, Paul Cohen, a prominent New York business leader living with a form of muscular dystrophy, invited a group of individuals to meet in his Rye, N.Y., office. Each had a personal connection to muscular dystrophy, and the gathering focused on the urgent need to raise funds to advance research seeking treatments and cures for muscular dystrophy. The group — so vested in the fight against neuromuscular diseases — formed the organization that became the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA).

Getting celebrities involved

One of Cohen’s first goals was to recruit celebrities who could help promote the young Association to the American public. Cohen met with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to urge them to become champions for the cause. They agreed.

Martin and Lewis make first televised national appeal for MDA

Thanks to Cohen’s persuasiveness, on Dec. 28, 1951, Martin and Lewis concluded their popular NBC network television show with a special appeal to support muscular dystrophy research.

Martin and Lewis plug MDA on national radio

Expanding the reach of their initial televised appeal, the comedy team of Martin and Lewis made a second national appeal during its Jan. 4, 1952, network radio program. Later that year, Martin and Lewis were named MDA National Co-Chairmen.

Five MDA Telethons in two years

Early to recognize the power of television to bolster awareness and raise income for the Association, Cohen’s pioneering fundraising priority was to establish local Telethons featuring a variety of stars. Thanks to early hosting commitments from top stars, including Robert Alda, Dick Van Dyke, Captain Video and Virginia Graham, MDA successfully broadcast five local Telethons in two years:

  • Cleveland, Ohio — March 7, 1952
  • Atlanta, Ga. — June 6-7, 1952
  • Washington, D.C. — Dec. 26-27, 1952 
  • Grand Rapids, Mich. — June 27-28, 1953
  • Madison, Wis. — Sept. 12-13, 1953

First national sponsors on board

In the early 1950s, the National Association of Letter Carriers and the International Association of Fire Fighters became the two first national sponsors for the Association.

The NALC quickly established a nationwide door-to-door campaign for MDA and continues to support MDA as a national sponsor today. The inaugural door-to-door campaign was heralded by a special two-hour, coast-to-coast television show hosted by Martin and Lewis called “Television Party for Muscular Dystrophy Honoring the Letter Carriers of America for Their Volunteer March for Mercy.”

In the same time frame, a group of families affected by muscular dystrophy approached Local 718 fire station in Boston to ask professional fire fighters to help fight muscular dystrophy. Responding enthusiastically, the fire fighters took to the streets with their boots in hand to ask greater Boston to make donations that would be used to fight muscular dystrophy.

The Fill the Boot® campaign was an instant success, with the IAFF membership passing a resolution to support the Association’s fight against muscular dystrophy until treatments and cures are found. Nearly 60 years later, professional fire fighters and the IAFF continue their tradition of being the No. 1 fundraising organization for MDA. In 2011, fire fighters raised more than $27.1 million to advance MDA’s lifesaving mission.

Martin and Lewis Telethon for MDA

Despite having dissolved their legendary comedic partnership, Martin and Lewis co-hosted the 1956 Telethon originating from New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall. “The Martin and Lewis Roundup,” was broadcast June 29-30.

Lewis named National Chairman

After the successful 1956 Telethon, Lewis was named the organization’s National Chairman, a voluntary position he would hold for 55 years.

Thanksgiving Telethons get under way

Thanksgivings 1957 and 1959 brought the first two Telethons hosted by Lewis. But because of Lewis’ film commitments, he didn’t host another Telethon until 1966.

MDA’s legendary Labor Day Telethon series

The first MDA Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon was broadcast in 1966 by a single station in New York (WNEW-TV). The telecast was so successful that the Association selected Labor Day weekend for all future Telethons. Then, with help from broadcasting icons Sylvester “Pat” Weaver and Robert M. Bennett, the Association created a “Love Network” of stations that in 1971 facilitated the nation’s first networked Telethon.

Since 1966, the MDA Labor Day Telethon has had a variety of names, including the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, “The” Telethon and Stars Across America!. 

The popular Labor Day weekend show has originated from New York, Las Vegas and Hollywood. Now broadcast by more than 150 television stations, the annual telecast has frequently included live remote segments.

Landmark Telethon success

The most successful fundraising event in the history of television, the show, with Lewis as its iconic host and with help from a legion of top celebrities and entertainers, has raised nearly $2 billion during its first 46 years.   

Thanks to unwavering public support of MDA's research and services programs through the Telethon, pledges and other fundraising efforts, MDA became the first nonprofit organization to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Medical Association “for significant and lasting contributions to the health and welfare of humanity.”

Telethon contributions

Each year’s Telethon success reflects amazing grassroots support of Telethon-related special events nationwide, as well as direct marketing initiatives; sponsor-driven fundraising activities; and pledges and contributions made to MDA by phone (1-800-FIGHT-MD), text (“MDA” to 50555)* and online donations at during the broadcast.

Telethon talent

The Telethon has consistently enjoyed robust support from the biggest stars in show business. Over the years, countless megastars have appeared on the Telethon to help families affected by muscular dystrophy. Many were introduced by the late Ed McMahon, who, starting in 1968, served as Telethon anchor for 40 years. 

When it comes to memorable moments from the nearly 1,000 hours of live television broadcast during MDA Labor Day Telethons, the surprise 1976 Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis reunion organized by Frank Sinatra still tops a truly incredible list of unforgettable television highlights.

Thousands of the biggest names in show business have appeared on the Telethon, including: Alan Alda, Jason Alexander, Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Carol Burnett, Richard Burton, Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, Bill Cosby, Billy Crystal, Doris Day, Robert DeNiro, Patty Duke, Jimmy Fallon, Don Francisco of “Sabado Gigante,” Jackie Gleason, Whoopi Goldberg, Woody Harrelson, Neil Patrick Harris, Larry King, Burt Lancaster, Jack Lemmon, Howie Mandel, Dr. Phil McGraw, Eddie Murphy, Bob Newhart, Paul Newman, Rosie O’Donnell, Gregory Peck, Regis Philbin, Ray Romano, Mickey Rooney, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, William Shatner, Martin Short, Ed Sullivan, Barbara Walters, Betty White, Robin Williams and Oprah Winfrey.

Consider musical acts, too, and it’s easy to see why the Telethon is so much a part of Americana. The Telethon audience has enjoyed thousands of hit performances by a diverse range of artists, including: Alabama, Count Basie, The Bee Gees, Tony Bennett, Clint Black, Jon Bon Jovi, Garth Brooks, Mariah Carey, Ray Charles, Cher, Kenny Chesney, Chicago, Phil Collins, The Commodores, Perry Como, Sammy Davis Jr., Gloria Estefan, Aretha Franklin, Josh Groban, Faith Hill, Enrique Iglesias, Julio Iglesias, Alan Jackson, The Jackson 5, Billy Joel, Elton John, Quincy Jones, Tom Jones, KISS, Eartha Kitt, Cyndi Lauper, John Lennon, Tracy Lawrence, Paul McCartney, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Oak Ridge Boys, Donny and Marie Osmond, Dolly Parton, Tom Petty, Queen, Debbie Reynolds, LeAnn Rimes, Kid Rock, Kenny Rogers, Carlos Santana, Spice Girls, Ringo Starr, Rolling Stones, Sugarland, Randy Travis, Tina Turner, Eddie Van Halen, Clay Walker, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder and Wynonna. Even the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, performed on the MDA Telethon.

MDA families and programs

While entertainment remains a priority, some of the most riveting Telethon moments have come from unsung heroes taking the stage. From MDA National Goodwill Ambassadors, including Ben Teraberry, Mike Neufeldt, Kelly Mahoney, Ben Cumbo, Sarah Schwegel, Mattie Stepanek, Luke Christie and Abbey Umali; to families sharing how the Association makes concrete differences in their lives; to MDA-funded researchers and clinicians describing why public support of MDA and the Telethon is so vital, the biggest secret to the show’s enduring success is having people express themselves in their own words.

Lewis retires from the Telethon

On May 16, 2011, Jerry Lewis announced that he was retiring as host of the annual MDA Labor Day Telethon.

MDA will be forever grateful to Jerry Lewis, a world-class humanitarian, for his indefatigable and inspiring work in behalf of people with neuromuscular diseases, and for the countless dollars his commitment helped raise for critical research and services.

Telethon changes

MDA is excited to announce that the 2013 MDA Show of Strength Telethon has entered into an exclusive partnership with the ABC Television Network to broadcast the annual Labor Day weekend show. The two-hour, prime-time telethon will be shown on ABC affiliates nationwide on Sunday, Sept. 1, beginning at 9 p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific time zones, and 8 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones.

For the past 46 years, the MDA telethon has been a Labor Day weekend tradition and has become the most successful fundraising event in the history of television. But as viewers know, the iconic show has been evolving in length and format in recent years to adapt to changes in viewer habits and the television broadcasting industry.

Being on ABC ensures that the telethon will have a larger viewing audience — at least twice as many viewers as in recent years due to ABC’s wider reach — which in turn will maximize MDA’s ability to spread the word about its fight against muscle disease. It also will maximize fundraising efforts in support of MDA's programs of research and support. The bigger ABC stage will attract bigger celebrities, and will feature high-caliber performances and celebrity appearances that will make the show an entertainment event not to be missed.

The telethon has consistently enjoyed robust support from thousands of the biggest stars in show business. But — as always — the real stars on the broadcast are the MDA families who have graciously agreed to open their homes and hearts to America and tell their stories of strength. The telethon will introduce the general public to several remarkable individuals whose “stories of strength” will raise public awareness of the effects of neuromuscular disease and the unprecedented scientific and medical advances currently being made against these devastating diseases.


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