Sunday, April 21, 2024

Labor Day Jerry Lewis Telethon Without Comedian: MDA Lost $14 Million Last Year


It’s Labor Day weekend so there must be a Labor Day telethon, right? Wrong. There’s a two hour show on Sunday night on ABC, a far cry from Jerry Lewis’s beloved (and often playfully mocked) 21 hour Las Vegas marathons. Lewis was fired after the 2010 telethon (and 50 years with the organization).  The show was reduced to six hours in 2011 and just three in 2012. The tote board is gone, too. No big drum roll to see how many millions have come in for Muscular Dystrophy.

Last year it took MDA until the end of September to declare how much they’d made on Labor Day. The number was $58.7 million. But that’s what was pledged. In their new federal tax filing Form 990, MDA doesn’t list that $58.7 million anywhere. And for the first time they don’t even mention the telethon. They just lump it in with other “special events.”

This is a big change from the prior year. In 2011, the proclaimed they’d raked in $61.5 million without Lewis. But when the tax filing was made public, MDA listed under Revenue-Telethon just $30 million collected.

Roxan Olivas, the pr director for MDA, says in an email: “The amount collected in 2011 was approximately $61.5 million (could be less or more based on redemption and after show donations) and is reported in various sections of the 2011 990, including special events. Your statement about MDA announcing $60 million and collecting $30 million is inaccurate. The totals represent pledges, credit card donations, text message donations and telethon-related sponsor support.”

But that 50% collection rate, considerably down from prior years, is what’s listed on the federal tax filing. That’s all we can go by. The number $61.5 million appears not in one place on the 2011 Form 990.

As for 2012, Olivas says: “the amount we collected in 2012 is $58.7 million and was reported in special events of our 990.”

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Actually, she’s wrong. There’s no listing for $58.7 million or the telethon on the 2012 tax filing. This is what’s under “Special Events”: a total of $116 million in gross receipts for all “special events.”  There’s no specific break-out  for the telethon (aka “MDA Show of Strength”). Of that total, $100 million is listed as “charitable contributions.” Gross income from the “special events” is $15.9 million. Olivas says the $58.7 million is part of that. We’ll have to take her word for it.

MDA, via Olivas, will not release a break down of the 2012 telethon. So if the collection rate remained steady or dropped from 2011 and 2010, there’s no record of it. Given the past history of MDA, the 2012 telethon collection was more likely — and this is only conjecture– around $28 million.

Even worse: For 2012, revenue less expenses came to minus–that’s negative— $14 million. That’s better than 2011’s whopping $19 million dip into red ink, but still much worse than 2010 (-$5 million) or 2009 (-$10 million). Of course none of these figures compare with the whopping $42 million loss MDA took in 2008 over bad investments. They wound up cutting their wheelchair program.

Since MDA tossed Jerry Lewis and shrunk the show, the numbers have been going down.  In 2009, MDA claimed $60 mil but collected only $45 mil. In 2010, Lewis’s last year, they claimed $58 million and collected $48 million. were even lower.

Overall donations to MDA are down, too. Total contributions and grants — including whatever money came in from the telethons– fell from $158 mil in 2011 to $149.5 mil in 2012.

There’ s no doubt that MDA still does a lot of good. They still give a sizeable amount away every year– in 2012, MDA distributed $47 million in grants– about $12 million in aid, and $34 million in research. That’s still a lot of money. But it’s much less, say, than when Lewis was there. In 2008, MDA gave away over $61.6 million. In 2009, in the thick of the recession, the number was $53.5 million.

Little by little everything is falling– income, revenue, grants. The only thing that gets better at MDA is salaries.

In 2012, they finally replaced Gerald Weinberg, the long time president, who was making over $400,000. (In 2012, Weinberg still managed to pick up $148k in salary from MDA.)

The new guy, Stephen Derks, comes from the Illinois branch of the American Cancer Society. Derks’ salary, according to the MDA 2012 form 990 was a measly $17,000. His actual annual compensation isn’t listed. But Derks was making $367,000 with ACS. It’s unlikely he took a pay cut.  Olivas did not answer the question of how much Derks signed on for.

The rest of the MDA hierarchy is well paid, all six figures, with exec VP Valerie Cwik coming in at just under $300,000. Indeed, even with revenue falling, there are still no fewer than eleven executives– not counting Derks– pulling six figures incomes.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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