Skaters and the Muscular Dystrophy Association Working Together
By Alan Bacon November 17, 2023
MDA’s most visible fundraiser in those decades was its telethon, hosted by Jerry Lewis over Sunday and Monday of Labor Day weekend. The RSROA became the largest contributor of funds to the telethon for some years. Beginning in 1972, skaters raised $72,000, surpassing their target by 40 percent. Even in the first year that the RSROA participated, roller skaters were one of the top five contributors.
Donations jumped to $303,000 the next year, and over $2.1 million in 1977. In 1980, $2.5 million was raised before contributions declined after the Roller Disco era. In 1975 only two other sponsors raised over 1 million dollars: McDonalds and the Fire Fighters. Also, many rinks were the number one contributor to the fundraiser in their local market.
Roller skating received national and local media exposure due to the telethon. At one point, roller skating was featured on national TV 10 times during the telethon for a total of 30 minutes. In 1977 roller skating received more air time than any other corporate sponsor. This was partly due to the entertainment value of skating for the telethon with skaters performing live on national TV. In 1975, the Nielsen survey found that 47.3 percent of all TV viewers watched a portion of the telethon, reaching 100 million viewers and a peak of 213 stations. This was in addition to the appearances of skaters all over the country on local TV stations. Local exposure may have been even more important to rinks than the national telethon coverage.
In May 1972, Mike Dorso and Joe Nemanich, RSROA board members, proposed a partnership with MDA. Dorso had already partnered with MDA at his own rink. The board eventually endorsed MDA as an official charity of the RSROA. “Skating so others may walk” became the slogan of the RSROA’s MDA fundraising activities.
Seventy rinks participated in 1972; by 1980, it reached 920 rinks. In 1976, 30 percent of RSROA rinks were participating.
Skaters raised money through pledged donations for every hour or mile they skated. “In the RSROA’s first two years of effort on behalf of MDA, rinks tried a variety of traditional fundraising approaches: skating shows, raffles, bake sales, skating parties, canister collections, etc. By far the most successful fundraising project, and that which was the most popular with the skaters, was the Skate-A-Thon.” (Skate Spring 1974)
Some skaters took fundraising very seriously. “It was not unusual for one skater to raise as much as $500 throughout the campaign.” (Skate Spring 1975) Some did even more. Skaters at Skateland of the Valley in Harlingen, MacAllen and Brownsville, Texas, raised nearly $50,000 for their Skate-A-Thon.
At RollerWorld in Santee, California, in conjunction with a Skate-A-Thon in 1981, three rink floor guards set a world record skating 337 hours and 20 minutes, a little longer than 14 days and nights. They were allowed 5-minute breaks for every hour of skating.
In Los Angeles, nine skaters skated up to 75 miles throughout the city with police escorts with perhaps 1 million people being aware of it.
MDA was founded in 1950. The telethon was hosted by Jerry Lewis from 1966-2010. Jerry Lewis made appearances at RSROA conventions thanking the organization for its support. Total donations from all contributors reached over $30 million per year in the 1980s, and rose to $65 million in 2008. The show dominated the airways during Labor Day weekend, being broadcasted up to 21 hours. This annual event may have been the best media exposure roller skating has ever had.
Alan Bacon is the director of Section 1 of the RSA, owner of Rollarena Skating Center in Richland, Washington, history teacher, treasurer of the National Museum of Roller Skating, and writer/editor of The National Museum of Roller Skating’s enewsletter.
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