The first-ever Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), broadcast in 1966 by just one station in New York City, was the first televised fund-raising event of its kind to raise more than $1 million in pledges.

By 1970, the MDA “Love Network” had grown to 65 stations nationwide. Today, the 21½-hour broadcast has become a Labor Day tradition for tens of millions of Americans, and is shown on some 200 MDA "Love Network" stations.

In 1998, the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon became the first worldwide telethon, with an Internet simulcast of the national broadcast, hosted by RealNetworks, seen at  MDA’s Web site.

For almost 40 years, Jerry’s confidence in the generosity and compassion of the American people has been justified. His Labor Day Telethons since 1966 have continued to set records for dollars pledged, as the battle against neuromuscular diseases has yielded increased life expectancy, improved quality of life, and scores of research milestones bringing closer the goal of cures.


The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon is one of the nation’s most watched entertainment programs. Last year’s Telethon was watched by more than 60 million viewers in North America, plus millions more worldwide on the Internet. The MDA broadcast is considered the granddaddy of all Telethons.

No other televised fund-raising event comes close to matching the caliber of the MDA Telethon, which consistently achieves a significantly larger rating than any broadcast of its kind.

Where Telethon Dollars Go

The Telethon continues to be MDA’s single most important fund-raising event. Funds raised during the show help the Association carry on its fight against more than 40 neuromuscular diseases by supporting a worldwide program of basic and applied research, a nationwide network of comprehensive medical and support services, and extensive professional and public education.

Children and adults with neuromuscular diseases in communities nationwide benefit directly from public support of the Telethon. For example, some 230 MDA-supported clinics offer medical care, physical therapy and flu shots.

MDA also sponsors some 91 summer camp sessions for thousands of youngsters with neuromuscular diseases across the country. Support groups for family members, along with assistance with purchase and repair of wheelchairs, leg braces and assistive communication devices, are other MDA programs made possible by Telethon-generated donations.

Why the Dollars Count

MDA’s tireless efforts on behalf of people with neuromuscular diseases have achieved worldwide recognition. MDA was the first national voluntary health organization to be awarded the American Medical Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for “significant and lasting contributions to the health and welfare of humanity.” In recent years, MDA National Chairman Jerry Lewis has received humanitarian awards from the American Academy of Neurology, Research!America, Variety Clubs International and Rotary International.

MDA-funded scientists have made dozens of major advances that put treatments or cures for neuromuscular diseases in sight. Recently, MDA researchers have:

·        Combined gene therapy with stem cell therapy to correct Duchenne muscular dystrophy in mice, and continued human trials of the antibiotic gentamicin, which might be effective in some children with DMD

·        Continued to support lifesaving human trials of enzyme replacement therapy for Pompe's disease, an infant-onset metabolic disease of muscle that’s often fatal to infants

·        Assisted with development and testing of potential drug therapies for Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS), and located genetic flaws in a nerve cell supply line that could be a pivotal event leading to ALS.

·        Set the stage for using gene therapy to treat spinal muscular atrophy (SMA)

·        Tested two methods of “gene silencing” in cells harboring the elongated stretch of DNA that causes myotonic muscular dystrophy type 1, the most common form of MD in adults

·        Found that more than 70 percent of patients with myasthenia gravis responded positively to the transplant rejection prevention drug, CellCept

Celebrity Support

Every year, a veritable “Who’s Who” of entertainers, athletes and leaders in business, government and civic affairs have participated in the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon to show their support of MDA’s fight against neuromuscular diseases. Many also take part in other MDA fund-raising events across the country or serve in key MDA volunteer posts.

Among MDA’s Board members are Ed McMahon, long-time Telethon anchor; “Entertainment Tonight”’s  Jann Carl, Telethon co-host; noted singer and Telethon favorite Maureen McGovern; and Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner, also a frequent Telethon co-host.

Other luminaries serve as MDA vice presidents. These include sports greats Nadia Comaneci, Michael Strahan and Ben Davidson; publisher Walter Anderson; entertainers Tony Orlando, Charo, Norm Crosby and Casey Kasem; and renowned heart surgeon Dr. Michael E. DeBakey.

In addition to serving as the Telethon’s star and MDA’s national chairman, Jerry Lewis has been MDA’s number-one volunteer for more than 50 years.

Corporate and Community Involvement

Many organizations and businesses back MDA’s programs of research and services by holding fund-raising events throughout the year. Their representatives join Jerry on the Telethon to let the public know they’re taking an active role in the effort to defeat neuromuscular diseases.

MDA and its Telethon also depend on the solid support of a network of some two million volunteers nationwide. Anyone wishing to take part in the fight against muscular dystrophy and related diseases is welcome to join MDA’s crusade. For information on how to help MDA as a volunteer or sponsor, viewers are encouraged to call (800) 572-1717. To learn about MDA online, visit MDA’s Web site at You can also visit MDA’s site devoted exclusively to ALS at, or its Spanish-language site at

— Adapted from the Muscular Dystrophy Association 2003 Digital Media Kit