It's appropriate that the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon is primarily based in Las Vegas: The show has given us plenty of opportunity over the years to play a game of chance we'll call TV Channel Roulette.
Flip on the show at 3 a.m. and perhaps you'll see a no-name lounge singer crooning "Volare." Try again and you'll spot a corporate stiff in a boardroom suit handing over an oversized check for $25,000. Flip back and just maybe you'll catch a magic moment, like in 1976 when Frank Sinatra reunited Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin after a two-decade feud.
This year, no matter when you turn on the show, one thing appears certain: You won't be seeing Jerry Lewis.
Which is a shame. Even if it is time for him to exit, Lewis, who dedicated more than half of his 85 years to the charity, helping raise more than $2 billion, deserves a chance to say goodbye.
The treatment of Lewis is puzzling: In May, it was announced the upcoming telethon would mark his last appearance after 45 turns at the helm. In early August, MDA officials declared, without much explanation, that Lewis was off the show for good. A report he'd be back after all later surfaced, only to be promptly sunk.
We're guessing that Lewis can't be easy to work with, and, we’re not going to pretend the comic actor, for all his good work, is anything close to a saint. He's shown far more personalities over the years than his greatest creation, "The Nutty Professor." There's the arrogant egomaniac who once declared women aren't funny. There’s the bawling do-gooder who, you suspect, genuinely cares for his "kids." After all these years, he can instantly morph into the manic, "Hey, Lady!"-screeching manchild he rode to fame nearly seven decades ago.
Part of our fascination with the telethon rested in that you never knew which Jerry you would be getting moment to moment – save for the end of the 21 1/2-hour marathon, when he would tearfully sing, without a trace of irony, "You'll Never Walk Alone."
All of those Jerry Lewises, all outsized personalities contained under a helmet of shellacked hair, should get to take one last bow. The show – and for more importantly, the charity – are great diminished without him, and not just because the telethon has been reduced to a mere six hours this years.
If only out of habit, we'll play a game of TV Channel Roulette Sunday night and hope that somehow we’ll see Lewis on hand to receive the grand sendoff he's earned.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.