The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon in Dayton was hosted by Don Brown for 18 years.
While growing up I never knew the meaning of Labor Day (it’s still not totally clear), other than it was a holiday and that white pants couldn’t be worn after it. For me Labor Day was just when my family had another picnic and when the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) Telethon was on, which was founded by comedian Jerry Lewis. It would start on Sunday night and continue all the way into Monday evening. The telethon with all the big Hollywood stars was held in Las Vegas, but segments of the Dayton telethon would also be shown, which originated from Hara Arena. While it lacked the glitz and glamour of the Vegas show, the local telethon was still compelling to watch. The Dayton telethon was first hosted by Johnny Walker, but beginning in 1987, Don Brown took the reins and held them for 18 years. He’s the only host that I remember and Walker was before my time. The MDA Telethon has since been discontinued, and though it’s missed, it created lots of memories, especially for Don Brown.
While Brown feels extremely blessed to have served as host for so many years, he almost initially passed on the opportunity. He admired Walker deeply, considered him like a second father, and felt unworthy to step into his shoes. “I told him that I couldn’t do it, it was too big for me, but Johnny said, ‘I’ve seen you with the kids and the camera doesn’t lie.’ He convinced me that I could and it’s the best decision that I ever made,” said Brown.
Through the years, Brown experienced many great memories with the telethon; including when his twin daughters appeared on it for the first time. As a sports anchor for Channel 22, Brown also enjoyed all the professional athletes from the area who visited, such as Reds pitchers Rob Murphy & Bill Landrum, Anthony Munoz of the Bengals, and John Paxson and Ron Harper of the NBA (Chicago Bulls). If professional wrestling happened to be in the area, some wrestlers would come on, and one year Johnny B. Badd picked Brown up and twirled him around.
Other memories involve Kerrigan & Christopher (WTUE) who once sat in a hot tub filled with spaghetti. For another one of their appearances, the duo sat atop the Hara Arena billboard, and Brown went up to join them and played the accordion.
It’s the children though (Jerry’s kids) that made the biggest impact on Brown, seeing their bravery in battling the terrible disease. “The kids are what it was all about and are who stands out to me the most. They always broke me up,” he said.
Brown is also very proud of the fact that some elements that were used in the Las Vegas telethon were started in Dayton, such as recognizing the 50th caller and ringing a bell when a goal was reached. Every August, Brown would attend an MDA convention in Las Vegas, and he feels very fortunate to have met Jerry Lewis.
To host the telethon was a year round project for Brown, as he was always attending and speaking at events for the MDA. He particularly enjoyed the Coldwater Softball Tournament, which is still held annually.
After being on the air for over twenty straight hours for an emotionally draining telecast, Brown followed a rule set by Walker to still go to work the next day. “Johnny would say that all the volunteers had to go back to work, so we should too. I would always be on for six o’clock sports, but not at eleven,” Brown laughed.
Though Brown was the face of the telethon, he gives all the credit to those who called in with donations and answered the phones through the years. “A telethon doesn’t mean squat without the pledges by phone,” he said.
While the final phone call for the MDA Telethon has been answered, the memories will continue to ring in Brown’s mind.