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Telethon's talent show is about more than talent

Columnist Steve Lange says Eagles Cancer Telethon is Jan. 15-16.

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It’s time, once again, for your annual reminder to attend — and donate to — the Eagles Cancer Telethon.

First of all, it is a talent show.

And talent shows fascinate me, not necessarily for what is happening onstage, but because I can’t stop wondering about that moment when the dad said, “Hey, we should start a family hip-hop troupe!” And the rest of the family immediately responded with a resounding, “Yes!” And then, “Let’s ask Grandpa and Grandma to join!”

I have a hard time getting our entire family to go to a movie with me.

I’m certain they would be less than enthused about me repeatedly correcting their jazz hands technique as part of my dope choreography for our family routine to “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black-Eyed Peas.

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But if you’re ever considering taking part in — or watching — a talent show, nothing is more moving than seeing locals give their time and talent to the Eagles Cancer Telethon.

From 8 p.m. Jan. 15 until 4 p.m. Jan. 16, roughly 125 talent show acts will perform for 20 straight hours in front of Mayo Civic Center crowds ranging from a packed house during prime time to, at 5 a.m., mostly camera operators, volunteers, and KTTC personalities. Anyone can show up, for free, and watch.

So it’s gone for 67 years. In that first year, 1954, the telethon raised just more than $10,000. Last year, it brought in about $1 million.

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Telethon acts consist of everything from Elvis impersonators to jugglers to yodelers to tap-dancing grandmothers to that family who decided to start that hip-hop troupe.

The phone-in donations, I’m sure, increase when those performers get the chance, on live TV, to explain the motivation behind their performance.

They’re here, they’ll tell you, because they lost a little brother to cancer. Or because their favorite teacher lost all her hair to chemo, and she’s been gone from school a lot. Or because their infant — their little baby boy — survived cancer because of research funded from events such as this.

You realize those hours spent hip-hop dancing in the basement were about something bigger.

Daughter Hadley, now 22, spent five years — from age 13 to 18 — auditioning for the telethon. Anyone who has attended one of these tryouts, held in November at the Eagles Club, knows just having the nerve to audition is an accomplishment in itself.

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For her first two years, similar to a lot of acts, Hadley did not receive that precious “yes” email. She kept trying, though, if only because she wanted to get the chance to say, right there on TV, that she was doing this for my mom, her grandma, who died of cancer 20 years before Hadley was born.

On year three, Hadley finally got that “yes” email. Even though she got a 5 a.m slot, she felt like a star. That year, Hadley played ukulele and sang “Riptide,” and the camera cut to my wife, Lindy, for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, most likely because she was the only person in the audience. It didn’t matter because Hadley got the chance to tell everyone why she was there.

The next year, Hadley scored an 8 p.m. Saturday slot and played ukulele and sang A-ha’s “Take On Me” and the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.” Most importantly, though, when the KTTC host asked Hadley why she had tried out, Hadley told the story about her aunt, my brother’s wife, Tammi, who died of brain cancer at age 51. My brother and his kids, I know, were watching over a live stream back home in Michigan.

And you realize, in those moments, what all the other performers and volunteers are really doing this for.

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Steve Lange is the editor of Rochester Magazine. His column appears every Tuesday.

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