Remember when telethons were a big thing? Americans would dial in and be greeted by celebrities like Mary Tyler Moore or Betty White. Before Walk to Cure Arthritis and Jingle Bell Run, telethons were a major lifeline (pun intended) for our organization, so we could impact the course of the disease and support the millions of Americans living with it.Recently, we were inspired to look back and raise our glass to the people and celebrities who helped bring in donations on our behalf. Why? Mrs. Maisel. The 2019 season of the Emmy-winning series, Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” not only celebrates an iconic chapter in America’s and our organization’s history, but also includes an episode inspired by our rich history of telethons.
While it may be wrapped up in drama (would you expect differently from off-the-cuff Midge?), it’s a nod to how nonprofits supported the people who counted on them – and we’re celebrating that moment with the premiere of season two.
Interesting fact: The first Arthritis Foundation Telethon aired in New York City in 1953 and featured more than 300 celebrities, according to scholar and historian Paul Longmore in his 2016 book, “Telethons.” Those earliest programs featured Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Lucille Ball, Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny and many more superstars.
Here’s a bit more history about the Arthritis Foundation, our telethons and the people who have been with us along the way:
In 2018, the Arthritis Foundation commemorates 70 years of service to the arthritis community. Seven decades of commitment to those with arthritis and related diseases.
To help us move the needle, the Arthritis Foundation was the leader of nationally-televised Stop Arthritis Telethons, which flourished for many years. These star-studded fundraisers brought together the most famous celebrities of the time – from all branches of entertainment and sports – to call attention to arthritis and appeal for donations.
Over the years, many of the most popular cultural icons of the day added their voices: George Burns, Walt Disney, Eddie Albert, Charleton Heston, Carol Burnett, Betty White, Mary Tyler Moore, Ed Asner, Joan Rivers, Victoria Principal and many more.
From the 1970s through the early 1990s, Arthritis Foundation Telethons were an annual event. Anchored in Southern California – and in some years, from Las Vegas and San Antonio – they were hosted by Oscar-winning actress Jane Wyman, who battled arthritis herself and poured her heart and soul into this urgent cause. She refurbished the telethon and was primary emcee for more than 20 years – along with Allen Ludden, gameshow host and late husband of Betty White. Local TV affiliates had their own segments, featuring local arthritis patients, experts and supporters.
By 1990, the Arthritis Telethon had spread to almost 100 markets across the U.S., reaching an estimated 40 million viewers. In 1992 alone, we raised more than $20 million.
Stanford Rubin, an Arthritis Foundation volunteer for more than 50 years and former national board chair, was instrumental in pulling the telethons together, working both behind-the-scenes and on-camera to promote estate gifts and our bequest programs. He and his wife, Adrienne, were close friends of Jane Wyman, whose estate he represents. Earlier this year, Stan made it possible for every gift of $10,000 or more to our Be the One campaign by Dec. 31 to be matched from the Jane Wyman Trust – up to $2.4 million.
“We had a lot of good times and moving experiences with the telethons,” Stan recalls. “Back then, they were the primary method of getting the Arthritis Foundation’s name and our cause, as well as information about arthritis, out to the public.”
By the early 1990s, the national telethon had moved to Nashville, anchored by country music stars. But soon after, telethons had run their course. The cost of air-time had become too expensive. Viewing habits had changed, with more channels available to watch. There’s still an occasional local telethon held on the Arthritis Foundation’s behalf, but otherwise they are now a thing of the past.
Arthritis Foundation Telethons raised a ton of publicity about a disease most people didn’t give a second thought about. “They were a significant and inexpensive way of telling the Arthritis Foundation’s story and raising money for research grants,” Stan remembers.
However we get the word out today, through social media and otherwise, arthritis still needs more attention. Help us get a grip on it and share your story and dedications.