How Australia’s most successful charity event came to be

It had its origins in a televised fundraiser for bushfire victims.

It was modelled on televised fundraisers in the United States.

Its ethos was based on — and remains — the concept of giving back to the community.

And its role in helping sick children — especially through research to open up new ways to change lives for the better — was got underway by a chat on a golf course.

“It”, is of course, Telethon, WA’s annual and much-loved Channel 7 fundraising event.

While there could hardly be a person in this State who is not aware of what has become part of WA’s social fabric, Telethon’s very longevity means that there may be some who are not aware of how it all began way back in 1968.

And how the Telethon creed was really born with the foundation of the station — the State’s first.

The genesis of Channel 7 can be traced to a single contact between the-then managing editor of WA Newspapers Ltd, James E. Macartney, and one of his senior executives, Jim, later Sir James, Cruthers.

Camera Icon Jim Cruthers, later Sir James, opens Telethon 1971. Credit: Unknown/Seven West Media

“He called me,” Sir James later remembered, “and said that the board of the newspaper had decided to apply for Perth’s first TV licence. He’d made a booking for me to fly to Melbourne to try to find out everything I could about television and then to prepare the application.”

Mr Macartney’s edict was the first that Sir James had heard of any plan involving television and he got no further briefing until the licence was granted eight months later. Then Mr Macartney told him that he wanted the station on air “a year from now”.

That would have been, as it happened, on October 13 but there were some nerves about going to air for the first time on the 13th, so he granted extra time for Sir James to prepare for the big event.

The station had nothing — no building, no staff, no programs, no agreements to buy programs from other broadcasters. Initially, its home was in the basement of the old Newspaper House in St Georges Terrace.

But work began.

The other thing Mr Macartney said to Sir James was that he wanted the station to have a strong community base, to be a people’s channel.

One major enduring element of that sentiment is Telethon.

Bill McKenzie, who joined the station in 1959 as part of the pioneering team, told The West Australian that Sir James made sure they knew of that community focus, which had been voiced in 1956 by then Federal minister responsible for broadcasting, Charles Davidson.

Bill McKenzie started on the studio floor and became general manager.
Camera IconBill McKenzie started on the studio floor and became general manager. Credit: Supplied

Davidson had argued that the conduct of a commercial television station was not to be considered as merely running a business for profit, but must be dedicated to the principle that a broadcasting licence was a public trust for the benefit of society.

TVW Channel 7 went to air on October 16, 1959, and Sir James became chairman and managing director as the station ran events as diverse as a Pet Parade, Birdman Rally and Milk Carton Regatta.

But the biggest and most enduring were the Christmas Pageant and Telethon.

Mr McKenzie said station executives were sent overseas regularly to look for ideas — one of which was telethons.

The word was a shortened version of “television fund-raising marathon”, and comedian Milton Berle is credited with hosting the first telethon — for a cancer fund — which NBC broadcast in the US in 1949.

In 1951, entertainers Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis concluded their popular US television show with a special appeal to support muscular dystrophy research.

After a spate of smaller, local US telethons, in 1956 Martin and Lewis co-hosted their first Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon from New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall — the first of many Lewis would host.

From its humble beginnings, Telethon has grown into the world’s highest per capita fundraising event.

Mr McKenzie said that Channel 7 watched the emergence of telethons in the US with interest.

“We knew it was going to be difficult, and expensive,” Mr McKenzie said.

But there was at least a local guide to follow.

WAtvhistory recounts that in January 1961, after a fierce bushfire had devastated the WA town of Dwellingup, lord mayor Harry Howard set up a fund to help victims — and Channel 7 set up a “ring-and-give telethon” to add its reach to the appeal.

The station altered its scheduled programming to stage the telethon and station staff stayed back to help and operate the 10 telephones set up to take donation pledges.

It was reported the next day that local artists had given their services free for “an informal variety show and visiting Victorian cricket captain Len Maddocks made an appeal to all cricketers and cricket followers”.

“During the telethon, Lord Mayor Howard asked viewers to put themselves in the place of the fire victims and give generously.

Kay Sunners of South Perth with a guitar signed by John Denver and Jo Rainsford of Doubleview
Camera IconKay Sunners of South Perth with a guitar signed by John Denver and Jo Rainsford of Doubleview Credit: Unknown/The West Australian

“Premier Brand urged viewers to contribute immediately to the telethon so that relief could be transmitted immediately to the victims of the disaster,” the report said.

It was reported that “despite a one-hour breakdown in the battery of 10 telephones specially installed for the appeal, more than 8000 pounds (about $14,000) was donated in the first 4 1/2 hours”.

The seeds of modern Telethon were sown.

Channel 7 also ran appeals in 1966 and 1967 to raise money to send Christmas parcels to West Australians serving overseas with the armed forces during the Vietnam war.

The 1966 appeal was launched on November 5 during the station’s 6.45pm news and ran through the evening, raising $5730.

The West Australian reported on November 7 that “donations to the Channel 7 Armed Forces Christmas Parcel Fund were pledged by 1166 people and ranged from 20c to $100”.

And the paper noted — in what was a forerunner of the much loved Telethon format involving star guests and a panel — that “individual donations were announced on television at 11.20pm on Saturday by members of the cast of ‘Oliver’!”

Meanwhile, Sir James was formulating another idea.

John Farnham at Telethon in 1975.
Camera IconJohn Farnham at Telethon in 1975. Credit: Unknown/Seven West Media

Mr McKenzie said it was during a Saturday game of golf at Lake Karrinyup golf course that Sir James pitched to the chief executive of Princess Margaret Hospital, Jim Clarkson, the idea of a telethon with proceeds going to the children’s hospital.

Mr Clarkson was delighted with the idea, adding that the focus should be on facilitating research, Mr McKenzie said.

“The announcement was made very quickly, then you got your running shoes on,” Mr McKenzie said.

“We kind of realised that every staff member (about 130) would need to volunteer, that there would be no advertising for 24 hours.

“Channel 7 would cover all of the above the line costs.”

The staff had agreed “as one,” he said.

Of enormous benefit was the fact that there were well-known variety shows and “tonight” shows in the capital cities which meant there was a big pool of experienced homegrown talent who could be asked to take part.

“They all agreed,” Mr McKenzie said. “The deal was Channel 7 would pay for them to come across, and a hotel, but they would not get payment for their appearance.

“The plan was gross proceeds would be net proceeds,” he said.

It is a model which remains today, with all proceeds going to Telethon beneficiaries.

At the time of the first Telethon Mr McKenzie was film manager — he would later become assistant station manager and eventually general manager.

Part of his job at the Telethons was to help vet individual donor pledges for any which seemed too big and suspect, and also choose some which would work well if they were read out by the panel or encouraged the artists to perform something (acceptable) to seal the donation.

Mr McKenzie said Telethon was like “a giant variety show made up on the run, it’s not formatted, it’s not scripted, and sometimes these donations played some sort of role in where the production was actually headed.

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