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‘Our Mission is Pure’: Producer Tony Thomas Recalls the Birth of a Philanthropic Superstar Powered by Hollywood and Immigrants

The son of Danny Thomas revisits the origin of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital on Variety podcast 'Strictly Business'

MEMPHIS, TN - NOVEMBER 20: Terre Thomas, Phil Donahue, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Marlo Thomas and Terry Thomas help cut the ribbon at the dedication of The Marlo Thomas Center For Global Education & Collaboration at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital on November 20, 2014 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Greg Campbell/Getty Images for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital)
Greg Campbell

As Hollywood origin stories go, it doesn’t get more inspirational than the philanthropic spark that led Danny Thomas to launch St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It’s a tale that has been well told, but it bears repeating at this time of year.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Thomas led the charge among Hollywood stars and in Arab American immigrant communities across the country to raise millions of dollars to build a hospital guided by the principle that no child would be turned away because of race, religion or a family’s ability to pay.

Today, St. Jude endures out of its home base in Memphis, Tenn., with a multi-billion dollar operating budget to provide life-saving care for children with catastrophic illnesses and conduct medical research into terminal illnesses. Simply put, St. Jude has become “America’s hospital,” in the words of Tony Thomas, producer of numerous TV hits including “The Golden Girls” and the son of Danny Thomas.

On the latest episode of Variety podcast “Strictly Business,” Tony Thomas details the business success stories that paved the way for St. Jude, which opened its doors in 1962.

As Danny Thomas’ career as a TV star and producer soared, he decided it was his time to give back. He reached out to his circle of Hollywood friends — think Frank Sinatra, George Burns, Milton Berle, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dinah Shore — to help spread the word and headline fundraising dinners. Thomas also tapped into his Lebanese American heritage to fundraise aggressively in Arab American communities and small business owners with a strong push to give back.

As a pre-teen, Tony watched the birth of St. Jude at the family’s dining room table.

Tony Thomas Getty Images

“My father grew up very poor,” Tony Thomas says. “He lived in a neighborhood [in Ohio] where children died of appendicitis, or tetanus or various infections that they never should have died from because they couldn’t afford medical care. So that was always in the back of his mind.”

The catalyst to get it all going came from a heartbreaking newspaper article that illuminated the cost of segregation in the deep south.

“It started after he read an article (about a situation) where a young Black child was hit by a white driver in Mississippi,” Tony Thomas says. “The driver had picked the child up, drove around to several hospitals and no hospital would take the little boy. By the time the little boy got admitted, the little boy had died. So my father said, ‘I’m going to build a hospital in the South where no child is turned away for race, religion or anything else.’ So that is how it got to be in the South. And at the dining room table, he started to figure out how he was going to do it, who he was going to enlist and start to raise the funds to take on the project.”

Danny Thomas’ talent representatives at the William Morris Agency took on St. Jude as a mission. So did his longtime lawyer, Paul Ziffren, helping him set up the corporation that created a strong foundation for St. Jude. Despite his busy Hollywood career, Danny Thomas hit the road on behalf of St. Jude, hosting fundraisers and making his pitch to Arab Americans in business.

“St. Jude had momentum because of Hollywood but he needed so much more,” Tony Thomas says. “So, he being a second-generation Arab American, he decided he would go to the communities in America where there were groups of Arab Americans, and he would say, ‘Let’s show America we deserve to be here. Let’s show America that we are good citizens. And we want to give back because we are thankful for this opportunity.’ And he was speaking in all these various cities to shopkeepers and furniture store owners and car dealerships and saying, ‘Please help me do this.’ And he went from town to town to town to town and America. And they all gathered around him and he kept raising funds between Hollywood and the Arab American community.”

Today, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) remains a standalone nonprofit devoted to raising money for St. Jude. Tony and his sisters, Marlo Thomas and Terre Thomas, have worked to keep a second- and third generation of entertainment industry insiders active with the organization. The bulk of St. Jude’s operating budget comes from individual donors.

“Our mission is pure — finding cures and saving children,” Thomas says. “My dad used to say, he didn’t want a millionaire to give him a million dollars, he wanted a million people to give him a dollar. And that’s truly what has happened.”

(Pictured top: Terre Thomas, Phil Donahue, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Marlo Thomas and Tony Thomas at the 2014 dedication of The Marlo Thomas Center For Global Education & Collaboration at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.)

“Strictly Business” is Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. New episodes debut every Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher and SoundCloud.