From Newark to Hollywood, it's been a remarkable journey for Jerry Lewis, a comic icon presented with his first Oscar last night. The 82-year-old Jersey native received a humanitarian award for a half-century of fundraising work as the Muscular Dystrophy Association's chairman and telethon host.
From the Garden State to the Golden State, Simi Linton made her own journey, traveling thousands of miles to picket the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' choice to honor Lewis.
Clad in a pink jacket, polka-dot scarf and pointy sunglasses, the disabled writer/filmmaker parked her wheelchair on Hollywood Boulevard the day before the Oscars, hoisting a handwritten sign, "Respect Not Pity."
"Jerry Lewis says everyone needs to raise money for these pitiable people," explained Linton, 61, who was injured in a car accident 36 years ago. She is author of a memoir, "My Body Politic." "We aren't pitiable people. We are strong and resourceful and the most powerful people in the world."
Linton and dozens of other activists were clustered in a circle just beyond the Kodak Theatre red carpet, making the case that Lewis has done more harm than good as an advocate. The group gathered, they said, to explain they are not victims seeking pledge dollars. They petitioned the Academy to rescind Lewis' award, posting the letter on the website, thetroublewithjerry.net.
The protest included street theater, as the demonstrators performed skits satirizing the telethon and rolled their wheelchairs down a mock red carpet. Penned on signs were such slogans as "Cure Jerry Lewis," "Pity isn't progress," and "Oscar: Don't reward bigotry."
"What we want is access and opportunity," said Lawrence Carter-Long, 41, of New York, a former poster child for United Cerebral Palsy. He belongs to a modern dance troupe called the GIMP Project.
Carter-Long continued, "We don't need a pat on the head. We certainly don't need to be called somebody's kid if we're 50 years old. People who have disabilities have always been thought of as childlike and unable to take care of themselves. If you feed into that idea, we're never going to get the jobs, we're never going to make our way in this country because people aren't going to see us as productive."
Dating back to 1966, the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon is a marathon mix of music and comedy that always ends with the host tearfully singing, "You'll Never Walk Alone." The program has tallied more than $2 billion in donations. A cure for muscular distrophy disease has yet to be found.
"The association does very little for people who have the disease," said Mike Ervin, 52, of Chicago, who has MD and runs an organization called Jerry's Orphans. "It's not like they've developed a treatment or a medication that improves people's lives. There's something very inadequate, something very dismissive, something very shallow about the concept of Jerry. This is a person who has serious problems with disability that are indicative of a deeper problem in the whole society."
As the group chanted, "No award for Jerry," they were greeted with confusion and occasional hostility. At one point, a young man scanned the signs and asked, "Is he nominated for something?"
The protesters were spread out on a street corner bustling with tourists hoping to get a glimpse of the glamour beyond police barricades. As one of them tried to pass a flier to a backpacker sipping a smoothie, he waved it away, saying "He's just a comedian."
That may be so, but Lewis remains a divisive figure, someone who's made politically incorrect remarks during interviews over the years.
Carter-Long said: "Who hasn't he offended? When he was in Australia, they asked him if he liked cricket and he said that cricket is a 'fag game.' At the comedy awards, they asked him what he thought of female comedians and he said that women aren't comedians, they're baby-making machines. There's ample reason to be upset about tagging his name to something called the humanitarian award."