TV Eye

Tears of a Clown

TV Eye

In the days before cable television, remote controls, VCRs, and when summer vacation meant three months of freedom, there was The Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. Because it occurred just before our return to school, it marked the last time my brother and I were allowed to stay up late. Because it was Jerry Lewis (my mother thought that, in his younger days, Jerry Lewis was almost as good as Cantinflas), because the telethon was for a good cause, because we were bored, and because we were pretty much willing to watching anything that wasn't a re-run, we watched the telethon.

Every year my mother said Jerry Lewis was so much better when he was with Dean Martin, but they split when something came between them. She shook her head in that "It's a crying shame" way but never said what it was that came between them. My brother and I speculated it must have been something horrendous, like maybe Dean called Jerry's mom a dirty name. (Did I mention I was six years old when the telethon first aired?)

Each year of the telethon, Jerry seemed more jaded -- or maybe he was always that way, and I only noticed as I got older. The Vegas lights and glitter couldn't mask what seemed to be a deep and tortured bitterness. I'd seen The Nutty Professor and some of those old Martin & Lewis movies on TV. So how did that wacky Jerry Lewis get to be this snarly, oily Jerry Lewis? Maybe it was because that cursed MD wouldn't go away or because pledges weren't coming in fast enough. My brother and I made sure to put our spare pennies and nickels in those MD collection jars we saw at the drug store.

Sometimes, my brother or I would get up in the middle of the night, turn on the TV, and see if something good was happening. Maybe at some unguarded moment, late at night, snarly Jerry would let wacky Jerry come out and then the fun would begin. But what we were really looking for was The Moment. That strange, though not unexpected, moment when Jerry would emerge from his Vegas-gilded shell and cry. It was usually after the timpani roll, when the new tally of pledges was revealed with "What the World Needs Now (Is Love, Sweet Love)" trumpeting in the background. Sometimes the moment came after he sang "You'll Never Walk Alone," his hair disheveled, his tuxedo shirt and tie undone, his eyes sagging with fatigue and cigarette smoke (smoking on live television was allowed). Hey, we didn't have JennyCam back then. This was as good as it got.

Once Jerry cried, it reminded us that summer was over, a new year of school was before us, and that maybe we'd have our own moments. How would we handle them? Would we cry like babies, suck it up, or would we even notice? Sometimes it's hard to recognize the significant moments in your life when there's no timpani roll in the background.

I missed the telethon the year Dean Martin came on unexpectedly. Jerry and Dean hugged, kissed each other on the cheek, and hugged some more until Frank Sinatra, who secretly planned the whole thing, broke up the embrace so he could sing another song. The two hadn't seen each other in 30 years. What a moment to miss. From what I've been told, Jerry didn't cry.

Television-wise, the telethon meant that it was time to look forward to the fall television season, college football games, Monday Night Football, and all those holiday TV specials. This fall is a little off-kilter, with the Summer Olympics starting next week and the regular networks opting to delay their season premieres till October. No matter. There are plenty of other TV events to occupy your time while waiting for something good to happen.

Television celebrates its own at the 2000 Annual Emmy Awards Show on Sunday night. Garry Shandling hosts this year's event, airing on ABC at 8pm. Ten hours of pre- and post- Emmy coverage airs on E! Entertainment Television. Whether you are interested in how the Emmy show is put together, want to hear what self-anointed fashionistas Joan and Melissa Rivers have to say about what nominees are wearing, or would like Emmy predictions from Tim O'Neill, author of The Emmys, and Matt Roush, senior television critic for TV Guide, the E! network has something for everyone. Emmy coverage on E! begins at 11am Sunday. Check listings for program details.

In case you didn't know, September is Hispanic Heritage Month. Televised events include: The Hispanic Heritage Awards, airing on NBC on Saturday. The Latin Grammys will be handed out on CBS on Wednesday -- check listings for air times. Local PBS affiliate KLRU has several programs on its September schedule focusing on the Latino experience in the U.S.:

Diego Rivera, one of Mexico's most dynamic artists, painted some of his most spectacular murals while in residence in the U.S. in the 1930s. Using rare archival footage, Rivera in America details his time in the States. It airs this Friday at 10pm.

Mexican-American artists, writers, activists, and politicians share their assimilation stories in the documentary Mexican Americans on Friday, September 15, 10pm.

Jimmy Smits, Esai Morales, Jennifer Lopez, and Lupe Ontiveros star in Gregory Nava's multigenerational drama Mi Familia/My Family, part of PBS' American Playhouse series airing Sunday, September 17, at 8pm.

Puerto Ricans: Our American Story airs on Friday, September 22, at 10pm.

La Ciudad/The City airs Saturday, September 23, at midnight (late Friday night). Using actors along with actual residents from New York's Latin Harlem, this critically acclaimed film, which won best narrative feature at the 1999 SXSW Film Festival, shares contemporary immigration stories in what has been called "a vivid and moving portrait of the immigrant experience today." The film is presented in Spanish with English subtitles.

Cuban Americans airs Friday, September 29, at 10pm. Check local listings to confirm air times and for more information.

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