Prime-Time Telethon Achieves Dramatic Success

New, shorter format attracts top acts, viewers and donations

Photos, top, from left: Boyz II Men, Luke Christie, Abbey Umali and the Clark County Children's Choir led the all-star finale; Voca People. Bottom, from left: Nigel Lythgoe, Alison Sweeney, Billy Ray Cyrus, Jann Carl and Nancy O'Dell.
Article Highlights:
  • A new, all prime-time format proved successful for the 2011 Telethon, which raised $61.5 million.
  • Nancy O’Dell, Nigel Lythgoe, Alison Sweeney and Jann Carl co-hosted the six-hour show, which featured such top entertainers as Celine Dion, Lady Antebellum, Boyz II Men, Darius Rucker, Richie Sambora, Martina McBride and Jordin Sparks.
by Quest Staff on October 1, 2011 - 9:46am

QUEST Vol. 18, No. 4

With a winning combination of top talent, generous sponsors, groundbreaking research updates and heartfelt appeals from families facing devastating muscle diseases, the 46th annual MDA Labor Day Telethon proved quite popular with the American public.

The 2011 Telethon raised more than $61.5 million — $2.6 million more than last year’s total and the highest since the recession began in 2008. The fast-paced show, which this year was shortened from 21½ hours to six, was broadcast from 6 p.m. to midnight in all time zones.

Accolades for Jerry Lewis

At the top of the show, each of the four Telethon co-hosts personally acknowledged Jerry Lewis, who retired as Telethon host in May 2011. Singer Celine Dion dedicated the song “Open Arms” to her “dear friend Jerry Lewis” and, near the end of the six-hour run, a video montage of the legendary entertainer showed him singing, dancing, mugging and laughing with former MDA Goodwill Ambassadors, famed Telethon entertainers and other Telethon participants throughout the years.

Returning this year as co-hosts were Nancy O’Dell (“Entertainment Tonight”), Nigel Lythgoe (“American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance”), Alison Sweeney (“The Biggest Loser”) and Jann Carl (Emmy-award winning journalist and independent producer). The New York City telecast was hosted by Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Ace Young, and the Chicago telecast was co-hosted by Olympic gold medalists Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci.

Joining the co-hosts onstage were MDA National Goodwill Ambassador Abbey Umali, who is affected by Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease, and MDA National Youth Chairman Luke Christie, who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). The young ambassadors gratefully accepted checks from sponsors. Abbey also presented her own check totaling $29,200, which she raised by reading books in her third annual “read-a-thon” for MDA.

Great entertainment

Jordin Sparks singing at the 2011 MDA Labor Day Telethon
Jordin Sparks
Darius Rucker with Abbey Umali singing at the 2011 MDA Labor Day Telethon
Darius Rucker with Abbey Umali

In addition to Celine Dion, chart-topping musicians appearing on the show included Lady Antebellum, Boyz II Men, Darius Rucker (who sang his hit “Come Back Song” in a duet with Abbey Umali), Richie Sambora, Martina McBride and Jordin Sparks.

Other performers included magicians Penn and Teller, dancers Jabbawockeez, the up-and-coming singer Greyson Chance, the Italian trio Il Volo, Voca People, Jon Secada, Michael Feinstein and longtime MDA supporter Maureen McGovern, among many others.

Winners of the Get Discovered! talent contest, sponsored by Clear Channel Radio and, made the most of their first performances on the national stage. Beating out some 7,800 other contestants, the three talented winners were: One Step Away, a pop/rock group from Boston; Brokedown Cadillac, country musicians from Nashville; and Rootdown, a pop/rock/reggae act from Eugene, Ore.

Research and family stories

Befitting a program dedicated to raising funds to find cures and treatments for neuromuscular diseases, the Telethon featured several updates on current research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD) and other muscle diseases under MDA’s umbrella.

Four families and individuals living with muscle disease were profiled in video segments and then appeared live, urging viewers to make the donations needed to advance lifesaving research into the diseases affecting them and their loved ones.

Poignant appeals for support came from the Pannu family, of Sacramento, Calif., whose 5-year-old son Neel has DMD; the Kanak family of Tucson, Ariz., whose 16-year-old daughter Raelyn has nemaline myopathy; the Tibbets family of Plymouth, Minn., whose son Jayson, 17, has Becker muscular dystrophy; and Aaron Bates, 31, of Orlando, Fla., who has SMA.

MDA’s fabulous sponsors

Representatives of MDA’s national sponsors again showed their willingness to Make a Muscle and Make a Difference for MDA by presenting checks representing generous donations collected throughout the year.

The family of MDA sponsors includes: Acosta, Augie’s Quest, Bally Total Fitness, Burger King, CITGO, Clear Channel Radio, ClubCorp, ERA Franchise Systems, DECA, Dr Pepper Snapple Group/Seven Up, Harley-Davidson Motor Co., International Association of Fire Fighters, Jiffy Lube, Kappa Alpha Order, Lowe’s Home Improvement, The National Beta Club, National Association of Letter Carriers, National Coalition of Associations of 7-Eleven Franchisees, Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, 7-Eleven of Oklahoma, Safeway, Tall Cedars of Lebanon of North America, Universal Cheerleaders Association, Valero Energy Corporation and Walgreens.

For the sixth consecutive year, the Telethon originated from the beautiful South Point Hotel in Las Vegas, reaching tens of millions of viewers by way of MDA’s Telethon network of more than 150 “Love Network” stations and their dedicated emcees and producers. The Telethon also was streamed live to more than 20 countries via

“We’re so grateful to everyone who made this amazing outcome possible,” said Gerald Weinberg, MDA President & CEO and Telethon executive producer. “Together, we’ve confirmed that prime time is where our Telethon can achieve the most for the families we serve.”

Telethon Extras online

Be sure to visit MDA's Telethon Extras page to see Telethon photos and videos of bonus performances, behind-the-scenes moments and backstage interviews..

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