The 31st Chabad “To Life” Telethon, Chabad of California’s highest-profile annual fundraising event, is scheduled to air on KTLA at 8 p.m. on Sunday, this time with former talk-show host Larry King as its celebrity host. But while in past years the event has had much advance publicity, this year few, if any, of the unmistakable black-hatted, black-clad dancing rabbis have been spotted on banners and billboards on the streets of Los Angeles.
“They’re actually going up today,” telethon producer Rabbi Chaim Cunin said in an interview on Monday, Sept. 19. “The dancing rabbis are coming at you,” Cunin said, adding that he expected the advertisements to be concentrated around the Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods around Pico-Robertson and in the San Fernando Valley.
This year’s ads for the telethon, Cunin said in a separate interview earlier this month, have been coming through a bit more slowly than he had hoped. Cunin said all the advertising for the telethon—like most everything it takes to put the program together—is donated.
That includes the talent. Comedian Jan Murray hosted the first telethon in 1981, and since then a stream of actors, politicians, and—of course—rabbis have graced the stage. Actor Jon Voight has been a frequent guest, as has radio commentator and Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager, who hosted the event in 2002. This is the second year running that retired Jewish CNN newsman King will host.
Cunin remembers putting flyers out on the windshields of cars when he was a toddler to promote the telethon, but more recently, Chabad has gotten the word out with banners hung from lampposts around the city. The display locations are made available by the City of Los Angeles’s Bureau of Street Lighting Community Services Division exclusively to nonprofit or charitable organizations. According to the division’s website, it costs $100 to apply to hang an unspecified number of banners for 30 days. The cost of production, installation and removal is much higher, running close to $50,000 for 500 banners, according to one company’s estimate.
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Chris Enriquez at the Bureau of Street Lighting said that Chabad is authorized by the city to apply for and install the banners itself.
Even the Chabad telethon website, tolife.com, appears to have begun promoting the 2011 telethon only about a month in advance of the event.
“Is the Chabad telethon happening in 2011?” Tom Gryn asked in a posting on the event’s Facebook page on Aug. 23. “There are no updates or mentions on KTLA or JLTV, and tolife.com is still listing the dates from 2010. This weekend is the usual date for the telethon…”
Gryn, who watched the telethon when he lived in Los Angeles, posted a report four days later that the 2011 date had been posted on tolife.com.
“Looks like it is only 3 hours this year.,” wrote Elayne Beneford of Toronto on Sept. 5.
“It does vary from year to year,” Cunin said, noting that the 2010 telethon also lasted three hours, while the 2008 and 2009 telethons lasted five hours, and, in 2005, the telethon ran a marathon nine hours.
In 2010, Cunin said, the telethon brought in between $5 million and $6 million for Chabad of California’s varied programs and institutions. Chabad of California runs schools, summer camps, and community outreach centers across the state, and also offers drug and alcohol rehabilitation, crisis intervention, and support for children with special needs.
In addition to being broadcast on KTLA his year’s program will be broadcast on DirecTV and on an independent station based on Long Island, New York.
Cunin said that like all nonprofits the economic downturn has hit Chabad on both sides of its balance sheet. Requests for assistance have increased, he said, and “incoming donations have really been affected in a very dramatic way.”
“We obviously are hoping for a major success on Sept. 25,” Cunin said.