MDA telethon shines minus Lewis

Even without Jerry Lewis, the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon posted its best gain since the recession started.

The telethon raised nearly $61.5 million Sunday, an increase of about $2.6 million over last year, MDA officials said.

“American Idol” executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said after co-hosting Sunday’s program that he thought the 85-year-old Lewis would show up either during the telecast or earlier to film a taped segment of his signature song “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

An orchestra was ready to film Lewis, but he didn’t come to the South Point in Las Vegas where the telethon was filmed, Lythgoe said.

Lewis publicist Candi Cazau declined to comment. Earlier, she said Lewis never agreed to any appearance — recorded or live — after the MDA announced in August that he wouldn’t take part in the show or be its chairman.

Lewis has not publicly said why he is no longer chairman of the MDA, or why he didn’t personally appear in this year’s telethon.

Lewis’ absence ended a 45-year run in which he raised $1.66 billion.

Telethon spokesman Jim Brown said early Monday that this year’s donations increased to nearly $61.5 million, the MDA’s best showing since 2008 when the recession started.

“The tremendous success of the telethon, even in a tough economy where some communities are also being challenged by natural disasters, shows that America understands and appreciates the truly rapid progress being made by MDA-funded researchers worldwide,” R. Rodney Howell, M.D., chairman of the MDA Board of Directors, said in a statement.

Lythgoe said he and other telethon hosts knew Lewis — a man inextricably bonded to the telethon — would be a presence even in a show that never included his voice.

“There appeared to be an elephant in the room, and it’s one that you go talk about,” Lythgoe said. “This guy is someone who’s put this whole thing together.”

But Lythgoe said the telethon and cause can’t center around one man — even Lewis.

“It has to continue without him and we are going to need a lot of help from everybody to ensure that it does continue,” Lythgoe said. “Because Jerry, bless him, is 85 and isn’t going to be around forever anyway. And the MDA and this telethon has to continue.”

Just before the show’s closing, a two-minute montage over piano music showed Lewis dancing, singing, mingling with famous faces and interviewing children, though he was never heard. It was a stark contrast from previous years, when the show was as much about Lewis at center stage as the donations themselves.

As the program aired, many viewers openly wondered on Twitter and other social networks about how the show would be affected by the split.

Randy Duncan, a 45-year-old pastor from Westland, Mich., said he tuned in for about two minutes, but stopped watching and instead switched between Detroit Tigers baseball and an airing of “Star Wars.” He said the show had lost the nostalgic touches that reminded him of raising money for the MDA with neighbors through backyard carnivals when he was a kid.

“The way they handled it just gave me no interest,” Duncan said. “At least give him one more shot, let him go out with style.”

Instead, the telethon was an unceremonious end to a six-decade association that forged one of the world’s most famous annual TV moments.

Lewis, who’s appeared in scores of films and TV shows as well as produced, directed and taught film, had been chairman of the MDA since the early 1950s, before the famed telethon began.

In May, when the MDA first announced Lewis was retiring as host, the organization said he would stay on as chairman and still appear on the show. It released a statement from Lewis in which the comedian said he would sing the song that has become an annual tradition.

But the statement said Lewis wouldn’t step down as chairman. “I’ll never desert MDA and my kids,” he said.

The finale was a medley of patriotic songs featuring Jordin Sparks, Jon Secada and Maureen McGovern, among others, singing along with 70 children from a Las Vegas choir.

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