Telethon 44: A Galaxy of Stars, a World of Compassion

Article Highlights:
  • Telethon raised $60.5 million for Jerry's Kids of all ages
  • Special tribute to longtime Telethon anchor Ed McMahon
  • Profiles of MDA spokespeople and families affected by muscle diseases
by Quest Staff on October 1, 2009 - 10:50am

QUEST Vol. 16, No. 4
Tom Bergeron

At the end of the 21½-hour marathon show at the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa in Las Vegas, there were several very tired co-hosts and one very tired star, but all were wreathed in smiles.

Despite a woozy economy, Telethon viewers demonstrated conclusively that they support finding cures for progressive muscle diseases, pouring in donations and pledges totaling $60.5 million. Though down $4.5 million from 2008, the sum was exemplary in the degree of generosity it reflected in these tough times.

A sparkling co-host array

Jerry Lewis was backed by a talented team of co-hosts who kept the show moving smoothly and strongly. But one familiar and beloved face was missing this year — longtime MDA supporter and Telethon anchor Ed McMahon, who passed away in June at age 86. A special tribute to McMahon was aired during the opening hour of the show.

Jann Carl and Ace Young

Ed would have been delighted with this year’s show, which was co-hosted by television personality Jann Carl, Nancy O’Dell (“Access Hollywood”), and Alison Sweeney (“Days of Our Lives” and “The Biggest Loser”), along with award-winning vocalists Ace Young and Billy Gilman, who also performed. Veteran Telethon co-host Tom Bergeron (“Dancing with the Stars” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos”) made several pre-taped appearances. From New York City, the show was co-hosted by consummate entertainer Tony Orlando; former Olympians Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci co-hosted from Chicago.

Also lighting up the set with sparkling personality and repartee was National Youth Chairman Luke Christie, 16, of Due West, S.C., who co-hosted the Telethon’s youth segments. Luke, a former two-term National Goodwill Ambassador, has spinal muscular atrophy. Although not a co-host, another audience favorite was 10-year-old MDA National Goodwill Ambassador Abbey Umali of Redlands, Calif. Abbey, who has a form of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, put the first numbers on the Telethon tote board with a donation of $5,385, raised by reading 35 books in six weeks.

Billy Gilman, Luke Christie and Alison Sweeney

Toward the end of the show, Jerry Lewis asked Abbey to serve a third term as MDA National Goodwill Ambassador, a rare honor. She agreed with obvious delight.

Families in the spotlight

Telethon audiences were moved by live interviews with individuals and families affected by muscular dystrophy and related diseases. Appearing on the show were Dave Calabrese, 37 of Maumee, Ohio (ALS); 12-year-old Tyler Myers of Las Vegas (Duchenne muscular dystrophy, DMD); Caroline Pennell, 14, of Chesterfield, Va. (limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, LGMD); Vance Taylor, 31, of Oxon, Md. (LGMD); and Kayla Vittek, 4, of Rocklin, Calif., (myotonic muscular dystrophy).

Augie and Lynne Nieto, co-chairs of MDA’s ALS Division, made a deep impression on viewers as they told their story and presented a check to Jerry Lewis for funds raised by MDA’s Augie’s Quest ALS research initiative.

Talent parade

A delightful stream of entertainers and performers provided song, music, dance and comedy. Among the many favorites were All-4-One, Brandon Barash, Joshua Bell,  Bo Bice, Neal E. Boyd, Charo, Terry Fator, Five for Fighting, the Grascals, Lee Greenwood, Jack Jones, Ronn Lucas, Reba McEntire, Maureen McGovern,


John Ondrasik, Dolly Parton, the Raggs Band, Suburban Legends, Ten Tenors, Three Dog Night, Train, George Wallace, War and Wynonna.  Country singers Bradley Walker of Athens, Ala., who has nemaline myopathy, and Calvin Ray Johnson of Mount Washington, Ky., who has DMD, were big crowd pleasers.

Nancy O'Dell, Lynne and Augie Nieto with their son Austin

Millions of viewers worldwide caught this lineup thanks to the 179 television stations in MDA’s “Love Network” and RealNetworks’ Internet streaming video. For the first time, Telethon fans were able to experience behind-the-scenes happenings via MDA’s Twitter and Facebook pages.

Sharing the spotlight were MDA sponsors who presented checks representing their tireless fundraising efforts for MDA throughout the year. These sponsors include: ACOSTA Sales & Marketing; A&P Grocery Stores; Burger King; Campus Reps; CITGO Petroleum Corp.; ClubCorp; Convenience Store Industry; DECA, an Association of Marketing Students; Denny’s Corp.; Dr Pepper Snapple Group; ERA Real Estate; Harley-Davidson Motor Company; the International Association of Fire Fighters; Kappa Alpha Order; Lowe’s; the National Association of Letter Carriers; Safeway; 7-Eleven; SUPERVALU/Albertsons; Tall Cedars of Lebanon of North America; and Universal Cheerleaders/Dancers Associations.

It’s thanks to all of these — and thousands more — that the Muscular Dystrophy Association is able to continue its vital missions of research, services, education and advocacy. 

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