Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Tears of a Clown

By Belinda Acosta

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000:  In the days before cable television, remote controls, VCRs, and when summer vacation meant three months of freedom, there was The Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. Because it occurred just before our return to school, it marked the last time my brother and I were allowed to stay up late. Because it was Jerry Lewis (my mother thought that, in his younger days, Jerry Lewis was almost as good as Cantinflas), because the telethon was for a good cause, because we were bored, and because we were pretty much willing to watching anything that wasn't a re-run, we watched the telethon.

Every year my mother said Jerry Lewis was so much better when he was with Dean Martin, but they split when something came between them. She shook her head in that "It's a crying shame" way but never said what it was that came between them. My brother and I speculated it must have been something horrendous, like maybe Dean called Jerry's mom a dirty name. (Did I mention I was six years old when the telethon first aired?)

Each year of the telethon, Jerry seemed more jaded -- or maybe he was always that way, and I only noticed as I got older. The Vegas lights and glitter couldn't mask what seemed to be a deep and tortured bitterness. I'd seen The Nutty Professor and some of those old Martin & Lewis movies on TV. So how did that wacky Jerry Lewis get to be this snarly, oily Jerry Lewis? Maybe it was because that cursed MD wouldn't go away or because pledges weren't coming in fast enough. My brother and I made sure to put our spare pennies and nickels in those MD collection jars we saw at the drug store.

Sometimes, my brother or I would get up in the middle of the night, turn on the TV, and see if something good was happening. Maybe at some unguarded moment, late at night, snarly Jerry would let wacky Jerry come out and then the fun would begin. But what we were really looking for was The Moment. That strange, though not unexpected, moment when Jerry would emerge from his Vegas-gilded shell and cry. It was usually after the timpani roll, when the new tally of pledges was revealed with "What the World Needs Now (Is Love, Sweet Love)" trumpeting in the background. Sometimes the moment came after he sang "You'll Never Walk Alone," his hair disheveled, his tuxedo shirt and tie undone, his eyes sagging with fatigue and cigarette smoke (smoking on live television was allowed). Hey, we didn't have JennyCam back then. This was as good as it got.

Once Jerry cried, it reminded us that summer was over, a new year of school was before us, and that maybe we'd have our own moments. How would we handle them? Would we cry like babies, suck it up, or would we even notice? Sometimes it's hard to recognize the significant moments in your life when there's no timpani roll in the background.

I missed the telethon the year Dean Martin came on unexpectedly. Jerry and Dean hugged, kissed each other on the cheek, and hugged some more until Frank Sinatra, who secretly planned the whole thing, broke up the embrace so he could sing another song. The two hadn't seen each other in 30 years. What a moment to miss. From what I've been told, Jerry didn't cry.


Television-wise, the telethon meant that it was time to look forward to the fall television season, college football games, Monday Night Football, and all those holiday TV specials. This fall is a little off-kilter, with the Summer Olympics starting next week and the regular networks opting to delay their season premieres till October. No matter. There are plenty of other TV events to occupy your time while waiting for something good to happen.


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