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December 22, 2014

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Lewis the ringleader, still, as MDA Telethon rolls on at South Point

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Justin M. Bowen

Jerry Lewis hosts the 44th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon on Sunday night. The yearly telethon is at the South Point and earns millions of dollars in the fight against muscular dystrophy.

Jerry Lewis 2009 MDA Telethon

Jerry Lewis hosts the 44th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon on Sunday night. The yearly telethon is at the South Point and earns millions of dollars in the fight against muscular dystrophy. Launch slideshow »

At the opening of his 44th Labor Day Telethon, Jerry Lewis stepped carefully but confidently to center stage as the audience in the showroom built specifically for the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon at South Point rose in applause. Appearing slimmer and healthier than in years past, the puffiness of prednisone use no longer an issue, Lewis walks tenderly because of chronic back trouble and is hunched but in remarkably good condition for a man who turns 84 in March.

He starts with a joke about a man who happens to be 84 who is found crying in Central Park. Another man comes upon him, and the 84-year-old explains that he has found a 26-year-old Swedish girlfriend, and the two have passionate sex twice a day. “Why are you crying?” the old man is asked. “Because I can’t remember where I live!” Later, Lewis sings “Can’t Smile Without You” and remarks that Americans are the “most caring, compassionate people in the world. That’s what we have in America.” He accepts the very first check, from MDA’s national chair, Abbey Umali, for $5,385. This was raised in large part from a read-a-thon Abbey hosted over the past year. “You know I love you,” Lewis says to the little girl. “I love you, too!” she says, and that sum is the first figure registered on the showroom’s big tote board.

During times off-camera, Lewis is treated as a boxer between rounds. He sits in a red chair as staff members hustle over to make sure his makeup is proper, he has water, and he has any needs, wants or suggestions met. Sometime Lewis simply fends for himself, dragging a chair across the stage for his next shot as Tom Bergeron makes one of his remote donation appeals. Lewis is certainly the ringmaster. At one point during the live telecast as he was chatting with co-hosts Nancy O’Dell, Jann Carl and Alison Sweeney, he shooed a photographer away from the camera he was speaking to at the time. Later, he was honored once more with his lifetime achievement Academy Award, with his daughter Danielle presenting the statue once more. It was a truly moving moment as Lewis at once clutched the award and his daughter.

Lewis and the MDA team lost one of the longest members of its telethon family when emcee Ed McMahon died in June. As McMahon’s widow, Pam, looked on from the audience, a nine-minute tribute film was played for the national audience. Lewis followed with some moving words about McMahon’s generosity and heartfelt involvement in the project, for which he appeared regularly since 1973. But Lewis, for whom any moment can be made lighter, ended by saying, “Wherever he is, I hope he’s got his booze.” And now, back to the show ...

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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