This past Saturday afternoon, e-sports star Benjamin Lupo set off on a mission to raise $2 million in 24 hours for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The 32-year-old husband and father from Omaha, Neb. is better known as DrLupo to the 3.5 million followers that have made him one of the most popular personalities on the gaming live-streaming platform Twitch. He’s held the modern equivalent of a “pick up the phone right now” telethon for St. Jude on his Twitch channel for the past few years.
This time, Lupo committed to a gaming marathon on the weekend before Christmas with the goal of breaking his personal best record of raising $700,000 in a day for St. Jude, the renowned hospital and medical research institution in Memphis, Tenn., for children facing catastrophic illnesses.
In the end, Lupo’s 24-hour live stream pulled in $2.3 million, assisted by a $1 million donation from Twitch. By the final hour, the host channeled the energy of Jerry Lewis from an earlier generation when he broke down after opening a Christmas present that turned out to be a giant check from Twitch.
“Bro, are you kidding me?” Lupo blurted before covering his mouth. He turned away from the camera as his eyes welled with tears.
Lupo’s work on behalf of St. Jude exemplifies the nonprofit organization’s notable successes in navigating rapidly changing times in every arena that is vital to its mission: fundraising, medicine, entertainment, philanthropy and in the culture at large.
The charitable organization with deep roots in Hollywood has dramatically grown its annual haul and donor base during the past decade by bringing its pitch for saving kids from life-threatening illnesses to new constituencies, from gamers to Latin music stars to social media influencers.
“Seeing the impact St. Jude has on literally the entire world because they share their research freely — it’s absolutely incredible,” Lupo told Variety. “Every donation you make is potentially helping someone anywhere on the planet. That to me is such a big statement about what they do and how they do it.”
Nearly 60 years after the hospital opened and almost three decades after the death of its devoted founder — entertainer-producer Danny Thomas — St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is thriving. It ranks high among the most influential and inspiring achievements to come from an entertainment industry-related charitable endeavor.
Thomas, a nightclub comedian who starred in the hit sitcom “Make Room for Daddy,” made some of his first public appeals for fundraising during appearances on “The Tonight Show” and in a 1957 installment of the CBS celebrity interview series “Person to Person” with Edward R. Murrow.
“He picked up a drawing of the hospital and looked at the camera and told people, ‘If you’ve ever been a fan of mine, please send money to St. Jude in Memphis, Tennessee,’” recalls Tony Thomas, a producer of “The Golden Girls” and other hits who is the youngest of Thomas’ three children. “And they did, which is pretty mind-boggling for something that wasn’t even built yet.”
Since its opening on Feb. 4, 1962, St. Jude’s pioneering research and innovative approach to treatment has changed the way childhood cancer is treated around the world. Research associated with St. Jude has helped boost the survival rate for those facing the six most common forms of childhood cancer from 20% in 1962 to 80% today. From day one, St. Jude has operated under the principle that no family ever receives a bill for treatment, housing, food or transportation to Memphis.
The story of how Thomas, a Rat Pack-adjacent comedian and TV star, willed the institution into existence is a story of religious faith, determination, commitment and the collective will of an immigrant community to give back to their adopted country. It’s also a powerful story of progressive action in the Civil Rights era. Thomas enlisted famed African American architect Paul Williams to build his dream of an inclusive hospital that would treat patients regardless of race, creed, religion or ability to pay. The arrival of St. Jude as the region’s first fully integrated hospital also spurred lasting changes in hospitality sector in Memphis. St. Jude leaders made it clear that the facility would only do business with hotels that accepted all guests, regardless of the color of their skin.
Today, St. Jude has an operating budget of $1 billion and treats about 8,500 children a year. Annual donations have climbed from about $600 million in 2009 to $1.7 billion last year. The National Cancer Institute estimated that about 16,000 people under the age of 20 were diagnosed with cancer in 2018. Of those, about 1,800 are estimated to have died.
St. Jude is supported by a broad base of about 11 million active donors with an average contribution of $43.25. Unlike other charities of St. Jude’s size, the operation is largely dependent on its small donors rather than big checks from corporations and foundations. That’s why fundraising innovations via social media and outreach efforts into newer constituencies are so important to the cause.
“They have done a good job in tapping into the gaming community,” said Eden Stiffman, senior editor at Chronicle of Philanthropy. According to the magazine’s ranking, St. Jude ranks No. 4 in the U.S. among all charities for annual cash donations, behind United Way, the Mayo Clinic and Salvation Army.
“They’ve been able to reach people in ways that a lot of other charities haven’t figured out,” Stiffman said.
The driving force behind the recent growth has been Richard Shadyac Jr., CEO of American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, or ALSAC. ALSAC is the fundraising arm of St. Jude established more than 50 years ago by Danny Thomas, who was the son of Lebanese immigrants.
When Thomas realized in the late 1950s that his Hollywood connections would not be enough to fund St. Jude, he reached out to Arab immigrant communities across the U.S. During this period, Danny Thomas met Richard Shadyac Sr., then a lawyer at the Justice Department, at a meeting held in a Washington, D.C. bowling alley. Shadyac Sr. eventually signed on to lead fundraising for ALSAC for many years. In 2009, his son took the reins of the organization, which is housed in the St. Jude complex in Memphis.
Shadyac Jr. and Thomas’ children — Marlo, Terre and Tony — are among a number of second- and third-generation family members to be active in the leadership of St. Jude. Marlo Thomas, an accomplished actor, author and activist, has long been a public face of St. Jude and its fundraising efforts. Third-generation Thomas family members active in the organization include musician Jason Thomas Gordon, son of Terre Thomas.
“We feel a very deep sense of responsibility to the children of the world,” said Shadyac Jr. “I’m proud that my parents were so proud of contributing to this great country. Ultimately they built St. Jude as a way to say thank you to God and to the United States.”
St. Jude’s latest ambition is to expand the reach of its medical work outside the U.S. through partnerships and educational efforts. St. Jude offers training programs for medical professionals from around the world. It is also exporting its fundraising expertise through training initiatives to help charitable and institutional entities efforts become self sustaining. Shadyac’s moon-shot dram is to improve the survival rate for children with cancer outside the U.S. to about 60%, from 20% at present, within 10 years.
“We know that if we’re successful we can save 1 million lives by 2030,” Shadyac said, who is the brother of film director Tom Shadyac. “Think about the impact those kids are going to have on the world.”
Danny Thomas was a man of deep faith and an observant Maronite Catholic throughout his life.
St. Jude hospital was named for St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes. Thomas believed his prayers to St. Jude were answered more than once at pivotal moments in his life.
Born Muzyad Yakhoob in Deerfield, Mich. in 1912, Thomas grew up in a poor family of nine children in the Toledo, Ohio area. His entry into the entertainment business came at the age of 11 when he got a job selling candy and cigarettes at a burlesque house. The gig gave him the chance to study the comedians and entertainers that performed in between the strip tease acts. He was hooked.
As the legend goes, by late 1937 Thomas was married, living in Detroit had just become a father with the birth of Marlo. He stopped into a church at dawn after working all night at a club. He needed $75 to pay the hospital bill for his wife Rose Marie and baby Marlo to come home.
Thomas offered a prayer to St. Jude and impulsively handed over the $7 he had in his pocket to the church’s collection box for the poor. He told St. Jude that “I need it back tenfold by Monday.” The following day, he got a call to do a radio commercial for a fee of $75.
In the early 1940s, Thomas was enjoying success in Chicago, mixing radio gigs and nightclub performances. He faced a crossroads when he was offered an equity stake in a hot night spot if he committed to a permanent residency there. He was torn because he wanted to pursue bigger acting roles in movies and radio. Again, Thomas prayed for guidance to St. Jude. He famously vowed “Show me my way in life and I will build you a shrine.” Days later, Thomas met legendary William Morris Agency rainmaker Abe Lastfogel, who took him under wing and brought him to Hollywood.
Thomas’ quest to fulfill his promise to St. Jude with a hospital that would eliminate the problem of income inequality for patients was inspired by his formative experiences.
Thomas never forgot the horror of seeing his younger brother go into convulsions after being bitten by a rat in his crib. Years later, Thomas was deeply moved by a newspaper story he read about a black boy in the south who died after being hit while riding a bicycle by a white man in a car. The man tried to bring to boy to three different hospitals but they refused to admit him.
That story sealed Thomas’ determination to build St. Jude in the south, as a beacon of progress. As planning began in earnest, Thomas was offered a plot of land near downtown Memphis for free by wealthy donors connected to Cardinal Samuel Stritch, who had been the bishop in Toledo when Thomas was young.
The number of fateful connections around the building of St. Jude were too numerous to be coincidental, according to those who knew Thomas best.
“It was just guided,” Tony Thomas said. “He always felt that way. Whenever we were struggling to get something done for the hospital and then something good would happen, he’d always turn to me and say ‘That was St. Jude, you know.’ ”
In the early days, Thomas relied on his friends and Hollywood associates to drive much of the fundraising effort with the general public. Jack Benny, George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jackie Gleason were among the stalwarts. Thomas himself was not only a TV star but a hugely successful producer behind such 1960s primetime hits as “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Gomer Pyle, USMC” and “The Mod Squad.”
“He’d grab two or three or four of his friends and go to a city for a show and call it a Shower of Stars,” Tony Thomas recalled. His parents were on the road for fundraisers so much that his mother became practiced at changing into a ball gown in gas station bathrooms, he said.
Thomas notes that it was much harder in those days to spread the word about charitable efforts, especially startup ventures. “There just wasn’t much of that going on in those days,” Thomas said. “Johnny Carson was about all the national exposure we had.”
Lastfogel, Thomas’ agent, and attorney Paul Ziffren (father of Ziffren Brittenham partner Ken Ziffren) created the first fundraising entity for St. Jude while sitting in Lastfogel’s office at the William Morris Agency. ALSAC was established when it became clear that St. Jude would require a full-time philanthropic arm to fulfill its founder’s bold vision.
Thomas dictum that “No child should die in the dawn of life” remains a guiding principle for those who work for St. Jude. His accomplishments are a testament to the power of faith and his drive to make a difference.
“What he did for St. Jude’s will never be forgotten,” Bob Hope told the New York Times after Thomas died at age 79 in February 1991.
“It’s America’s hospital,” Tony Thomas said. “This man with a 10th grade education — whose parents came from Lebanon not able to speak English — founded the most successful pediatric cancer institution in the world.”
Danny Thomas and Rose Marie Thomas, who died at age 86 in 2000, are buried on the grounds of St. Jude.
“The only thing he wanted on his tombstone was for it to say ‘Founder’ of St. Jude,” Tony Thomas said.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital had its first major breakthrough treating pediatric leukemia in 1966. Since then the institution has had scores of success stories in battling cancer in children who might not otherwise have had a chance. St. Jude’s stated mission is to keep working until “no child dies of cancer.”
The hospital itself has also broken ground in its facilities and approach to handling long-term treatment for catastrophic illnesses. The St. Jude complex is geared toward treating most of its kids on an outpatient basis, allowing them to live with their families in housing on the campus or nearby. St. Jude tries when possible to de-emphasize the use of wheelchairs, giving parents and caregivers red wagons to use instead.
The St. Jude ethos also insures that hospital and ALSAC staffers share the same open spaces and eat in the same cafeteria on the complex as patients and their families. The goal is to make St. Jude feel like a community of people working together to fight cancer, rather than have the patients feel isolated.
The celebrities who become involved with St. Jude have to spend time with kids at the Memphis facility before they can represent the organization. It is an emotional experience beyond compare, especially for those with children.
“The air that you breathe there is surprisingly positive,” said Luis Fonsi, the Latin music superstar who has been affiliated with St. Jude since 2006. “It’s always about ‘What can we do to keep saving lives? What can we do to make sure nobody loses their battle today?’ That’s the environment.”
After his daughter was born in 2011, Fonsi became even more dedicated to working for St. Jude. “I think it’s just about letting the world know that there is this special place,” he said. “When I see kids the same age as my daughter, it’s impossible not to think how would you react if you got that call from a doctor.”
As evidenced by Lupo’s live stream, St. Jude’s mission of generating strong support from the grassroots of America is still strong. Lupo’s push drew more than 13,000 donors, the names of which flashed briefly in the corner of the live stream screen like a smartphone alert: “BMcKinny donated $100.” “Zackpaint donated $50.” “TheBadger donated $50.”
St. Jude also has big-time corporate partners that help collect funds for the organization at cash registers and other point-of-sale opportunities, including Domino’s Pizza, Best Buy and Kmart.
But the heart of the organization has always been the generosity of individual donors. Most of them now have no first-hand memories of Danny Thomas smoking cigars and cracking jokes on “The Tonight Show,” let alone episodes of “Make Room for Daddy.” But the St. Jude logo — a silhouette of a child over an arc — endures as a symbol of hope.
For Hollywood, the story of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital should be held up as the gold standard of what is possible when the same tenacity that it takes to build a career in showbiz is channeled for a larger purpose. Danny Thomas’ prayers wound up saving lives.
“This work gets into your blood,” says Shadyac Jr. “When I travel around the country and see the way this beautiful mission unites people from all different backgrounds and races and creeds, it’s deeply humbling. It restores my faith in humanity. It really does.”
Pictured from top: Benjamin Lupo and a St. Jude patient in April 2019; ALSAC CEO Richard Shadyac Jr. (back row, far left) and others celebrate a fundraising milestone in 2016; Danny Thomas at the opening of St. Jude in 1962; Luis Fonsi and a St. Jude patient.