MDA's legacy of progress has always started with families at the heart of all we do. For more than 65 years, we have been committed to saving and improving the lives of kids and adults living with muscular dystrophy and related life-threatening diseases. We are proud of our rich history and grateful to the dedicated families and supporters who have made today's progress possible. The victories of our past will lead to tomorrow's treatments and cures.
How MDA Started
In June 1950, Paul Cohen, a prominent New York business leader living with muscular dystrophy, invited a group of individuals to meet in his Rye, New York, office. Each had a personal connection to muscular dystrophy, and the gathering focused on the urgent need to raise funds to advance research seeking treatments and cures for muscular dystrophy. The group — so vested in the fight against neuromuscular diseases — formed the organization that became the Muscular Dystrophy Association. That year, MDA’s first research grant for $1,500 was awarded to neuromuscular disease pioneer Ade. T. Milhorat, M.D.
Celebrities & Our Historic Telethon
MDA Families in the Spotlight
One of MDA’s first goals when it started in 1950 was to recruit celebrities who could help promote the newly created Muscular Dystrophy Association to the American public. Founder Paul Cohen met with renowned comedians and entertainers Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to urge them to become champions for the cause. They agreed.
On Dec. 28, 1951, Martin and Lewis concluded their popular NBC network television show with a special appeal to support muscular dystrophy research. The comedic duo made a second national appeal the following month during its Jan. 4, 1952, network radio program.
Early to recognize the power of television to bolster awareness and raise income for MDA, Cohen pioneered the establishment of local telethons featuring a variety of stars to raise money. Thanks to early hosting commitments from top stars, including Robert Alda, Dick Van Dyke, Captain Video and Virginia Graham, MDA successfully broadcast five local telethons in two years.
The MDA Telethon Begins
On June 29-30, 1956, Martin and Lewis co-hosted their first MDA telethon from New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall. Jerry Lewis hosted subsequent telethons in 1957 and 1959. In 1966, the first MDA Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon was broadcast by a single station in New York (WNEW-TV). The telecast was so successful that MDA selected Labor Day weekend for all future telethons. Then, with help from broadcasting icons Sylvester “Pat” Weaver and Robert M. Bennett, MDA created a “Love Network” of stations that in 1971 facilitated the nation’s first networked telethon.
Throughout the decades, the legendary Labor Day broadcast originated from different locations including New York, Las Vegas and Hollywood. The most successful fundraising event in the history of television, the show, with Lewis as its iconic host and with help from a legion of top celebrities and entertainers, raised nearly $2 billion during the years.
Thanks to unwavering public support of MDA's research and service programs through the telethon, pledges and other fundraising efforts, MDA became the first nonprofit organization to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Medical Association “for significant and lasting contributions to the health and welfare of humanity.”
Biggest Names in Show Business Show Their Support
Thousands of the biggest names in show business have appeared on the MDA telethon, including: Alan Alda, Jason Alexander, Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Carol Burnett, Richard Burton, Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, Bill Cosby, Billy Crystal, Doris Day, Robert DeNiro, Patty Duke, Jimmy Fallon, Don Francisco of “Sabado Gigante,” Jackie Gleason, Whoopi Goldberg, Woody Harrelson, Neil Patrick Harris, Larry King, Burt Lancaster, Jack Lemmon, Howie Mandel, Dr. Phil McGraw, Eddie Murphy, Bob Newhart, Paul Newman, Rosie O’Donnell, Gregory Peck, Regis Philbin, Ray Romano, Mickey Rooney, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, William Shatner, Martin Short, Ed Sullivan, Barbara Walters, Betty White, Robin Williams and Oprah Winfrey.
Consider musical acts, too, and it’s easy to see why the telethon is so much a part of American history. The telethon audience has enjoyed thousands of hit performances by a diverse range of artists, including: Alabama, Count Basie, The Bee Gees, Tony Bennett, Clint Black, Jon Bon Jovi, Garth Brooks, Mariah Carey, Ray Charles, Cher, Kenny Chesney, Chicago, Phil Collins, The Commodores, Perry Como, Sammy Davis Jr., Gloria Estefan, Aretha Franklin, Josh Groban, Faith Hill, Enrique Iglesias, Julio Iglesias, Alan Jackson, The Jackson 5, Billy Joel, Elton John, Quincy Jones, Tom Jones, KISS, Eartha Kitt, Cyndi Lauper, John Lennon, Tracy Lawrence, Paul McCartney, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Oak Ridge Boys, Donny and Marie Osmond, Dolly Parton, Tom Petty, Queen, Debbie Reynolds, LeAnn Rimes, Kid Rock, Kenny Rogers, Carlos Santana, Spice Girls, Ringo Starr, Rolling Stones, Sugarland, Randy Travis, Tina Turner, Eddie Van Halen, Clay Walker, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder and Wynonna. Even the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, American Authors, Backstreet Boys, Luke Bryan, Carole King, Kenny Loggins, Bret Michaels, Pitbull, Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker, Ryan Seacrest, Carrie Underwood, will.i.am. and many others performed on the MDA Telethon.
Despite the many celebrities that graced the telethon stage, some of the most riveting telethon moments came from courageous individuals and families taking the stage. From MDA National Goodwill Ambassadors, including Ben Teraberry, Mike Neufeldt, Kelly Mahoney, Ben Cumbo, Sarah Schwegel, Mattie Stepanek, Luke Christie, Abbey Umali, Bryson Foster and Reagan Imhoff; to other families sharing how MDA makes concrete differences in their lives; to MDA-funded researchers and clinicians describing why public support of MDA is so vital. A big part of the telethon’s success was letting people speak from the heart about the importance of the fight against muscular dystrophy and related diseases.
The End of an Era
On May 16, 2011, Jerry Lewis announced his retirement as host of the annual MDA Labor Day Telethon. MDA will be forever grateful to Jerry Lewis, a world-class humanitarian, for his indefatigable and inspiring work on behalf of kids and families with neuromuscular diseases, and for the countless dollars his commitment helped raise for critical research and services.
Throughout the decades, the broadcast industry evolved, bringing major changes in demographics and viewer habits, as well as rising production costs for live televised events. That meant the telethon needed to evolve too. In 2011, the 21½-hour show was streamlined to a more viewer friendly six-hour format. The following year, the show was streamlined further as a three-hour prime-time broadcast special that included performances and celebrity appearances from Hollywood, Nashville and New York. It also proudly featured a new name, the MDA Show of Strength Telethon.
In 2013 and 2014, the MDA Show of Strength Telethon became a two-hour entertainment-packed event carried exclusively on the ABC Television Network. The Show of Strength conveyed the same message of hope and progress as always while reaching out to younger viewers and supporters to strengthen MDA’s mission going forward.
On May 1, 2015, MDA made the difficult decision to end its historic telethon tradition. After careful consideration and analysis and as families and supporters began looking for new ways to support and get involved with the organization, MDA once again evolved with the times to create new opportunities through social media and other digital channels to inspire the nation in support of the fight against muscular dystrophy.
Watch classic telethon footage on the MDA Telethon YouTube channel.
Always Forward for Our Families
Today, MDA is more committed than ever to accelerating treatments and cures for muscle-debilitating diseases and helping kids and adults live longer and grow stronger. Through nationwide events in hometowns across America, the generosity of donors and corporate partners and our new Live Unlimited movement that rallies Americans to champion our important cause once again, we will create a world where families are free from the harm of these devastating diseases.
In the early 1950s, several important sponsors became long-standing allies of MDA, including the Tall Cedars of Lebanon of North America, the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).
The NALC quickly established a nationwide door-to-door campaign for MDA and continues to support MDA as a national sponsor today.
In the same time frame, a group of families affected by muscular dystrophy approached Local 718 fire station in Boston to ask professional fire fighters to help fight muscular dystrophy. Responding enthusiastically, the fire fighters took to the streets with their boots in hand to ask greater Boston to make donations that would be used to fight muscular dystrophy.
The Fill the Boot campaign was an instant success, with the IAFF membership passing a resolution to support MDA's fight against muscular dystrophy until treatments and cures are found. More than 60 years later, IAFF continues its tradition as the top fundraising organization for MDA today, raising more than $26 million each year to help MDA families live longer and grow stronger.
You can meet all of the partners who support MDA today here.