“Look at us, we’re walking!
Look at us, we’re talking!
We who’ve never walked or talked before…”
If you were anywhere near a television in the 1960s, you might have a vague recollection of those haunting lyrics from the ghost of telethons past. There are earworms, and there are earworms: songs that stick in our heads, and remain there for decades, somewhere in the mirror of our minds. You can dice ‘em, slice ‘em, and Shout ‘em out, but they remain like distant echoes from what seems like several lifetimes ago.
Telethons are almost an anachronism today. Yes, they still exist, but with so many channels to choose from, and so many entertainment options, who has time to sit through a weekend full of people begging for money? Back in TV’s so-called golden age, that was not the case. The annual telethons – Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy – were events. No matter how cool we were, we still tuned in to the Labor Day tradition, which at one time was also a WCIX tradition.
“Look at us, we’re laughing.
We’re happy and we’re laughing.
Thank you from our hearts, forever more.”
No one is more closely associated with those lyrics -- that earworm -- than Dennis James, for a long time the face of the annual Cerebral Palsy Telethon. James would be singing while the kids paraded around in wheelchairs and braces, some of them looking like they’re rather be on Mars than on that stage. That awkward but effective scene serves as a reminder of a time, before political correctness, when anyone who looked different was “them”, and the rest of us were… well, “us”--and yet once a year we reached out, and said “I’ll be there”, in the hope that a cure would be right around the corner.
“There are so many other children,
Who only speak with a silent prayer.
For those who haven’t been so lucky,
We hope and pray you will always care.”
I’m not sure how Vic Damone, a pop singer best-known for his recording of “On The Street Where You Live” (and this provocative, cleavage-heavy video from the early ‘60s), came to record the song… backed by the Barry College Choir. The Brooklyn-based entertainer made the recording for Art Records of Miami, a label whose roster through the years included a teen garage band (The Echoes), rockabilly artists, and even WCIX weatherman Don Franklin.
Of course the granddaddy of all TV fundraisers is Jerry Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, which through the years has brought its share of surprises… and train wrecks. One year actress Joan Crawford showed up visibly sloshed, reading a rather inappropriate poem about clumsy children. Another year Jerry Lewis, exhausted and sleep-deprived, referred to somebody as a fag, a horrible choice of words that caused its share of controversy (rightfully so).
Somewhere along the way I lost interest in telethons, and simply stopped watching… as did many people around my age. But I bet there will be a larger than usual audience this year, when Jerry Lewis takes the stage one final time. The 85-year-old comedian, suffering from heart problems and chronic back pain, will call it quits after September’s telethon, having already helped to raise more than a billion dollars through the years. He plans to sing his signature song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, one last time -- for after all, it is music that moves us. It is music that calls us to action, and remains in our minds for decades and decades. For me, it’s that other song that refuses to let go; a call to action for the so-called TV Generation that has, time after time, responded in abundance.
“Someday they’ll be walking.
Someday they’ll be talking,
Imagine walking to the candy store.
But the fight has just begun.
Get behind us everyone,
Your dollars make our dreams come true.
Thanks to you.
Thanks to you.”*
*“Look At Us We’re Walking!” by Gettinger & Reed. An internet search turned up no current publisher or copyright information.
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** UPDATE August 4, 2011 **
Now it turns out Jerry Lewis has been "released" from his position as national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association... and he will NOT be appearing on this year's telethon. No one is saying exactly what happened, but there's no doubt something did happen. This could not have been an easy decision for the MDA, since it will likely cost the organization millions in donations. Of course, somewhere some TV programmer is bemoaning all the additional viewers that have been lost, too.