3 a.m. at the Telethon

Ed McMahon
Ed McMahon

by Ed McMahon

Back when “The Tonight Show” was on the air, I couldn’t walk down the street without hearing somebody sing out, “Hi-yoooo.” Later that changed to, “Hey, Ed, where’s my 10 million bucks?” And when I hosted “Star Search,” countless people would spontaneously start tap dancing when they spotted me.

But of all the recognition I get, some of the most gratifying comes from the work I do for charities such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Nothing can compete with hearing someone gratefully describe receiving a power wheelchair, or a child giggling about his adventures at MDA summer camp.

Which is why, every Labor Day weekend since 1967, I’ve anchored the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon.

When I first appeared on the Telethon, I was supposed to do a quick appeal for “Jerry’s kids” and then leave. But Jerry decided to take an unannounced bathroom break and leave me out there by myself.

Not knowing what to do, I simply did what I knew — “Ladies and gentlemen, here they are, let’s give a big round of applause to the Flying….”  I glanced into the wings and there was Jerry watching me with his arms crossed, nodding approval. That year I did 10 minutes, the next year eight hours, and every year since then, I’ve been on board for the whole 21½ hours.

Nothing else is like the Telethon. We do more TV in one weekend than the cast of a sitcom does in an entire season. With performances by singers, dancers, comedians, rock groups, marching bands, entire Broadway casts, actors, athletes and animals, the Telethon is like a big vaudeville show. As exhausting as it is, even at 3 a.m., I truly love it.

In the beginning, it was hard knowing there wasn’t much hope for the children with muscular dystrophy that I met. Back then there was no light at the end of tunnel — the tunnel hadn’t even been built yet.

But each year yields new understanding and brightens the light. In the past year alone, MDA-supported researchers have made promising discoveries about preventing muscle loss, repairing damaged muscles, potential drug treatments and more. There’s real hope.

That’s what keeps my energy up at 3 a.m. — well, that plus a lot of coffee.

Another organization once asked me to host its show and offered to pay what MDA pays me to be on the Telethon. I had to laugh. As an unpaid volunteer, my payoff comes in seeing the scientific progress and human assistance made possible when compassionate and generous viewers donate dollars.

This Labor Day weekend, please tune in and phone in your pledge to MDA. You’ll get to experience what I love most about Telethon — a chance to do good while having fun.

And if you want, feel free to pass along a quick “hi yoooo!” while you’re at it. But — please — don’t tap dance.

Veteran broadcaster Ed McMahon is a member of the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Board of Directors. For more information about MDA, contact your local MDA office or go to www.mdausa.org. Be sure to watch the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon on KTRE-TV 9 beginning at 9:00 p.m. Sunday, August 31, or watch it via MDA’s Web site.

— Adapted from the Muscular Dystrophy Association 2003 Digital Media Kit