THE VILLAGE VOICE, a leftist, hip New York paper, used to run a comic strip entitled MacDoodle St. In one episode, Malcolm Frazzle--the hero, a poet who wears his hair long and a beard--met some Wayne Newton fans. "Wayne Newton?" Frazzle asks. "I'd rather listen to the sound of wild boars being vivisected by a psychotic neurosurgeon." Might as well damn baseball as boring, or stock car racing as a waste of gasoline. Might as well drive off the interstate to search for authentic small-town restaurants, instead of stopping at McDonalds. Might as well laugh at the literalists and the fundamentalists and the millenialists and all those people who are storing canned goods in Montana caves. Might as well just stand up and announce. "I'm better than--or at least I'm different from--(which of course means the same thing) huge stretches of what might be called Middle America." Because, to a sizeable and representative body of people who do not write music reviews but do travel to Las Vegas and know what they like, Wayne Newton is a paradigm of American entertainment. The Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon against Muscular Dystrophy is only 20 minutes old, and Wayne is the first entertainer to take the stage, a position befitting his status as king of Vegas. A nice down-tempo Johnny B. Goode, and then he segues into a classic, the classic maybe. "To dream the impossible dream," his chest swells inside the gold brocade jacket. His face, puffed enough from the good life to fill in any lines, begins to hang with sweat, small perfect beads on his forehead, twinkling in the kliegs. "To go where the brave dare not follow, To reach the unreachable star." He looks a little like Elvis--the pudgy, aging Elvis responsible for the sale of millions of commemorative ashtrays, the safe, sequined Elvis, the Vegas Elvis, and not the take-this, Memphis, denim Elvis that Middle America chewed on till he looked like them, or like they themselves wanted to look. "To right the unrightable wrong." He's talking about crippled kids, and across the country phones are starting to ring.
Who else performs for Jerry's Kids? Lesser Wayne Newtons, really. There's Julius LaRosa, who sang on Arthur Godfrey's radio show. And Tony Orlando, sans Dawn. Tony Orlando, Otis Elevator Co's favorite performer. Tony Orlando, who lives in that sapping--if profitable--wasteland reserved for performers with one smash record so monstrously huge that no one will ever forget their names, but, by the same token, so monstrously huge that they will never come close to matching it. It's a career built on the past, and thus that much safer for the audience; no surprises here. Orlando sings Sweet Gypsy Rose and Mack the Knife, says a few kind words about Tom Jones--an over-the-hill Wayne Newton, but an upscale Engelbert Humperdinck--and then talks about his inspiration. Two men have inspired him, Orlando says, two men whose lives laid out the path that would take him past "Knock Three Times (On the Ceiling If You Want Me)" and "Sweet Gypsy Rose" to his fifth symphony, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon." Considering the circumstances, one of the two--Jerry Lewis--is obvious, but the other much less so. It's Bobby Darin, or, as Orlando calls the late giant of the casino clubs, Mr. D.
Shortly after 11 p.m., the giant tote board signals that America has given $1 million. Live, from Atlantic City, via the magic of television. Francis Albert Sinatra. The Chairman can't really be classed with Wayne and Tony. He is them plus talent, class, and a little subtlety, cool sophistication one step above rhinestoned trying-very-hard glamor. Sinatra sings "New York, New York," which will be sung by at least six other performers during the show, and does it a little wryly, not just the simple "If I can make it there I can make it anywhere" Babbitry of his imitators. But he doesn't stay long, and soon Joey Heatherton is on stage, and Ben Vereen, and Jack Jones, all wards of Caesars Palace and the Sahara and the Dunes. And then Mike Douglas, crinkly-eyes and soothing friend of millions. And for the kids, a little "rock," from Rick Springfield, better known for his regular role on "General Hospital." A fat, old Mel Torme, Lola Falana.
Once an hour, WCVB-TV--Boston's Channel 5 and one of the 231 stations on the telethon's "Love Network," take over, and it's time for local celebrities. Not Harry Ellis Dickson, not Elma Lewis, not Charles Laquidara. It's Rex Trailer, a former cowboy who had a Saturday morning children's T.V. show about seven years ago. Now he leads trips to exciting Walt Disney World over April school vacation and, on Labor Day, helps raise money for Jerry's kids. Chet Curtis and Natalie Jacobsen, Channel 5's anchor team and newlyweds who recently had their first child (many dollars are pledged in the name of 14-week-old Lindsay Dawn). Jess Cain, who's been spinning records early in the morning since about forever. John Willis, the lethargic host of Channel 5's wake-up-slowly Morning Magazine. Years ago they had home-grown entertainment on these local cut-ins, but now there's only time to accept checks, a trend increasingly reflected in the national Lewis-hosted segments also. But no-one seems to mind--it's not the entertainment that people watch for, it's the grand spectacle of money changing hands, a game show in reverse, a bank's security camera trained on actors.
And who gives? It's not Cambridge that gives, or, more precisely, it's not the part of Cambridge that surrounds Harvard, the richest part. It's the older, poorer sections, East Cambridge and especially North Cambridge. It's not Lincoln and Weston, even though that's where the money is. That money is going, if it's going anywhere but tax shelters and gold, to alma maters and politicians, not to poster children. Jerry's bucks--if the givers who make it on to television to present their checks are any indication--come mostly from people who have sort of made it out, say as far as Everett or Lynn, or--in other parts of the country, where cities are still booming--from places like Orlando and Dallas.
And what draws the bucks? That's the $31, 498,872 question. In part, it's the obvious manipulation; filmed interviews with the parents of eight-month-old dead babies, singers so crippled they need straps to stay in their wheelchairs, Chad Everett weeping. A man with no upper-body movement who says he only wants to hug another human again; a man with frozen facial muscles who says he wants only to smile. Jerry Lewis, talking about how long he's spent in this crusade, and then stage-whispering, "I got to get a dollar more than last year...I would like this telethon not to happen, but until this scourge is eradicated, it will. We will finish this battle, with you or without you. It will be a lot easier with you."
But guilt can only be a part of the answer; the Cerebral Palsy telethon out-manipulates this affair any day. In that one, they get 100 or so little victims up on a stage and parade them around for half an hour or more in front of the cameras. And anyway, most Americans are very good about assuaging their guilt without parting with cash. No, what does it for Jerry's kids is this--his annual show is an affirmation of most every value near and dear to a great mass of countrymen known, inadequately, as Middle America, people who feel a sense of community, or increasingly, people who once did and wish they could again; they are the ones who join Jerry in his work. For he takes every virtue they understand and uses it, every routine they live and glorifies it.
A number of fraternal and corporate entities support the effort. There are, for example, the U.S. Jaycees and Jayceetes. Every representative tall, trim, impeccably groomed. $2.1 million. The Distributive Education Corporation of America--that's high school kids who sell things, and are hoping, their leader tells Jerry, to "develop a civic consciousness which allows our members to use their marketing skills for worthy projects. We really believe," he adds, "in the future of America." The Roller Skater Rink Operators Association of America, who have been hosting some $3 million worth of skate-a-thons. The Brunswick Corporation, (which, according to its president, held a picnic for MD-afflicted kids. "We promised them superstars, and we delivered. Professional bowler Carmen Salvino, for example."), makers of the sort of athletic equipment used in suburbs not blessed with tennis courts. That's bowling balls and pool tables. At the local station, the Letter Carriers union hands over a check, explaining the money was raised at a softball game between postal supervisors and "the credit union girls." Firefighters from all over; "what with Prop 2 1/2 and all," one Boston fireman explains, "it's been a tough year for us." But still they got out and collected, filled the boot, had a tag day. The Pioneers, telephone company employees with 18-plus years of service, and the Future Pioneers, telephone company employees with 18-minus years of service.
Every corporate sponsor comes up on camera to hand over a check. There are the folks from Reynolds Aluminum, who've been recycling aluminum all year not only to help Jerry's kids, but also to achieve energy independence for America. There's ERA Realty, and there's 7-Up, and Cross Pens. Every time a CEO comes out on stage, he makes the same small joke. "I've got a little check here Jerry...for $2.6 million." They smile sweetly while Lewis grins maniacally, they dutifully promise to raise even more next year and yea unto the generations, and then they trot off stage while Ed McMahon, the world's only professional introducer, welcomes the next guest. All the approved minor vices are there--Anheuser-Busch, the roller skater rink operators with nubile figure skaters in tow), and even the president of Harley-Davidson, which sells choppers. And, of course, there's McDonalds, ten years a telethon sponsor, with its well-scrubbed crew members presenting checks. "From our employees and customers in the Tallahassee district...$87,897," they intone, these people who must have fried or shaked or made change better than any of their peers, and certainly never grumbled about cleaning up, or had to wear a hair net to meet the local health code.
Yearning for the small town or tight city neighborhood that once was theirs, or if not was encoded on their genes, these Middle Americans are the easiest targets for the companies that enjoy so much advertising from this 21-hour extravaganza. Damn, they'd like to go to a real old-fashioned store, where people knew you and the food was good. But there aren't many of those in Lynn anymore; they've been driven out by the Seven-Elevens and the Hickory Farms--both big telethon friends--where you can find: dirty magazines in a rack by the window; a few objectionable apples; milk and bread; a bored high school kid behind the counter; and lots and lots of cigarettes and diet soda. And people have to pretend to love it, because there isn't any choice. "I'm out to change the corporate image," Lewis informs us early on. "They get a dirty deal... They're always doing things to help people." And people--the same people who voted for Ronald Reagan and now smile as he screws them--believe that, because they've been told it so many times and anyway, the company has a little check here for $7 million.
Politics and telethons don't necessarily mix; the Democrats tried a few years ago, getting all their celebrities up on the tube, and flashing "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party" on the screen, and bitching and moaning about the two-party system and the fatcats in the GOP. Truly embarassing, and to boot unsuccessful. But the MD people know which way the wind is blowing. "We don't accept any money from the federal government," Lewis says. "It's all up to you. We don't want to be subjugated." And what was our president talking about but people and enterprise picking up for the deficits left by decreased government? And how many Middle Americans blew their entire tax cut, maybe three times over, on Jerry's Kids?
Once, every affair had its clergy; political conventions still find a Jew and a Baptist and an Episcopalian and a Catholic to deliver the invocations on successive nights. But no men of the cloth take part in Jerry's affair, and indeed God seems curiously absent for all the talk of hope and faith and finding cures. So maybe that's the secret; these people, these scientists and entertainers and aluminum recyclers and french-fry-buyers and little shriveled kids with iron braces on their feet, maybe they can all solve their own problems, or at least make themselves feel a little better, by pouring all this awesome bake sale-hair-cut-a-thon-door-to-door-backyard-carnival energy into affirming loud and clear on nationwide tube all their values and habits and virtues and petty vices. If only everyone looked like them, and spent their time like them and ate and shopped where they did and listened to their records, then everything would be all right. And everything was almost all right anyway. The only people who criticize the telethon and all it stands for are "the people who can't understand the joy we're sharing," Lewis says. If only everyone liked Wayne Newton.
And here comes Wayne again; not only did he get to open the show, he'll get to close it too. He tells a short story about a girl named Jenny who died, he sings "New York, New York." And then, as the telethon is about to end, as the tote boards is making its last few revolutions, he wraps it all up, the tackiness and the communal feeling, the emptiness and the hope. He's sweating again, scarf round his neck, but now no clowning. First he sings "Dixie," agonizingly slowly, and then it segues into "America the Beautiful."