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A Telethon History

The “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon, spearheaded once again by telethon king George Clooney, raised a staggering $58 million in just two hours on the air. And it’s not done yet. The event is still raising money through downloads of the broadcast. This got me wondering how, in just two hours time, “Hope for Haiti” could raise as much money as the the 2009 “Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon” raised in its nearly 24 hours on television.

So I did a little research. Can you remember how the telethon trend got started? I bet a lot of you will guess the “Jerry Lewis Labor Day MDA Telethon.” If you did, you would be wrong.

Telethons first began to benefit local charities and were televised only in those local television markets. The very first local telethon ever was “Celebrity Parade,” a 15-hour telethon filmed in 1950 to benefit United Cerebral Palsy in New York. It raised nearly $1 million dollars. This telethon is no longer running, but another Cerebral Palsy telethon has the distinction of being the longest running local telethon broadcast on the same station in history.

The “Local Cerebral Palsy Telethon” has been broadcast on WBAY-TV in Green Bay Wisconsin since 1954. Though it is the longest running local telethon, it is not the most successful one. That distinction goes to the “Crusade for Children,” a telethon that first aired in 1954 for child-related charities in the Louisville, Kentucky area. Though local, its latest tally from the 2009 telethon raised more than $5 million dollars.

Go back to 1965 and you’ll find the very first “Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon” to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The now famous telethon featured a bevy of the world’s most popular celebrities and musicians combined with video segments of children and adults suffering from the disease. As a matter of fact, it is this “tragedy/charity” fundraising tactic that has created a cloud of controversy over this famous nationally-televised event.

My favorite dance band, the Bee Gees, created “The Music for UNICEF Concert: A Gift of Song” in 1979, and performed in the United Nations General Assembly. It was later telecast on NBC and an album was released featuring ABBA, the Bee Gees, Andy Gibb, John Denver, and Earth, Wind & Fire. More than $7 million dollars was raised from just one song, “Too Much Heaven,” and the proceeds from the entire project went to combat child poverty.

And, of course, though not the first televised benefit concert in history, you cannot forget Bob Geldof’s huge international “Live Aid” concert in 1985 that raised nearly $70 million dollars for African relief. On the heels of Live Aid’s success, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp raised more than $7 million to support the American farmer with their Farm Aid concerts.

Today, the concept of celebrities getting together for charity is pretty common. It’s a formula that is used over and over again because it has proven to work. George Clooney orchestrated “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and raised more than $100 million dollars from the telethon and sales of the concert DVD.

Several concerts were held after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, including one again organized by George Clooney, that collectively raised nearly $100 million dollars. And, Clooney was at the forefront after the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia, when he again called upon his friends in Hollywood and the music industry to host a telethon that raised more millions in aid.

In many cases, the millions that celebrities are able to raise with their star power represent more funds than a charity organization could ever raise on its own. Needless to say, telethons are here to stay. I pray to God that these disasters would stop and the world would find peace. But, if I were the victim of a disaster, I sure would want George Clooney and his friends raising money for me.

If you missed “Hope for Haiti Now,” when it was broadcast last week, why not consider downloading a version now? There is still time to raise money for Haiti, and they need as much as they can get. Or, if you’re not into the music and you just want to donate money, here are just a few of the legitimate organizations that could really use your donation.

American Red Cross
UNICEF
World Food Programme
White House Haiti Earthquake Relief
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