As Published in the Record Journal, Tuesday August 9, 2011
By Russell Blair
WALLINGFORD — Jim Zandri said it was Jerry Lewis who inspired him to start his own muscular dystrophy fundraiser, which continues for its 15th year next month.
“His involvement inspired me to do what I did,” Zandri said.
Lewis, who has been the face of the Muscular Dystrophy Association for nearly 60 years. won’t be hosting this year’s national telethon for the first time since 1966, but Zandri said he doesn’t think the departure will hurt fundraising efforts.
“The cause is still there, this is still needed,” Zandri said.
Before last week, when Lewis’ departure was announced, the MDA had already prepared changes to this year’s telethon. The event, which used to last 21 hours, will shift to prime time, from 6 p.m. to midnight on the Sunday before Labor Day. Traditionally, the telethon began Sunday night and continued into Monday.
Steve Fredrickson, executive director of the MDA’s New Haven district, said the changes were adopted for a number of reasons.
“We wanted to bring it into prime time,” Fredrickson said. “It’s the 21st century; we’re trying to capitalize more on Internet donations.”
Fredrickson has been with the MDA since January. He said he joined because he believed in the organization’s mission.
“Sunday I had my first chance to go to an MDA summer camp, and really see our funds at work,” Fredrickson said.
Zandri said that Lewis’ departure didn’t change too much in the planning of the event, and that he’d expected Lewis, 85, to step down from the association in the next few years.
“At some point it had to continue on without him,” Zandri said.
In a statement, R. Rodney Howell, MDA chairman of the board, said, “Jerry Lewis is a world-class humanitarian and we’re forever grateful to him for his more than half century of generous service to MDA. We will not be replacing him as MDA national chairman, and he will not be appearing on the telethon.”
The MDA has become synonymous with Lewis, Zandri said, but it was important that the organization create its own identity. It’s been a slow transition, but Zandri said that he thinks people are aware of the MDA for reasons other than Lewis.
“There’s a need for a transition,” he said. “It’s a new generation. My kids don’t know who Jerry Lewis is.”
Zandri expects turnout for the event to be the same as in years past.
“Most people come regardless,” he said. “I don’t expect anybody to abandon the cause because Jerry Lewis is gone. People support the cause because they’re affected personally by it.”
Fredrickson said that the MDA is expecting viewership of the telethon to be up this year because of the primetime hours.
Zandri’s telethon party will be hosted at Zandri’s Stillwood Inn, 1074 S. Colony Road, from 5:30 p.m. to midnight on Sept. 4. For a $50 donation to the MDA, guests have access to a buffet, an open bar, dancing and a silent auction. Zandri said that in 14 years, the local event has raised more than $300,000.
“There’s no gimmick,” Zandri said. “It’s just a donation, and it’s a good time.”