While it seems that for the foreseeable future charity fundraisers will occur online, the practice of putting them on television began in 1949 when Milton Berle hosted the first “telethon” (a portmanteau of “television” and “marathon”).
Though there were only 4 million TVs in U.S. homes, on Tuesday nights most were tuned to Berle’s Texaco Star Theater. His involvement with the telethon began with his friendship with Damon Runyon, a writer whose characters were the basis for the musical Guys and Dolls. After Runyon died in 1946, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation was established. Marathon fundraisers, especially to sell war bonds during World War II, already were established on radio, so it was a natural step for TV to adapt the format.
Who better than “Mr. Television,” Berle, then 40, to take fundraising to a new, televised level?
NBC broadcast the Runyon Cancer telethon to 12 East Coast cities from noon Saturday, April 9, until nearly 4 a.m. the next day. Berle only left the stage to change clothes. Life magazine described the telecast as “probably the longest sustained vaudeville performance on record.” Much of it was pure Berle shtick.
When he brought his mother onstage and urged her to smile, the comedian said: “Show your teeth, Mother, but don’t take them out.” The telethon raised $1.1 million ($20 million in today’s dollars).
This story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.