Monday, Sept. 5, 2011 | 8:54 a.m.
Even without Jerry Lewis, the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon posted its best gain since the recession started, though the program's longtime host was on the minds of many during the 46th annual fundraiser.
"American Idol" executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said after co-hosting Sunday's program that he's sorry the famed comedian didn't participate, but the organization needs to move on to ensure the fundraiser continues.
The telethon raised nearly $61.5 million Sunday, an increase of about $2.6 million over last year, MDA officials said.
Lythgoe told The Associated Press minutes after the six-hour live broadcast ended on the east coast that he thought the 85-year-old actor would show up either during the telecast or earlier to film a taped segment of his signature song "You'll Never Walk Alone."
"I was fully expecting him to turn up at any point and join that six hours _ and I'm sorry he didn't," Lythgoe told the AP. "And hopefully another year he might. I mean, he knows that he is always welcome on the telethon. It's his baby."
An orchestra was ready to film Lewis, but he didn't come to the Las Vegas casino where the telethon was filmed, Lythgoe said.
Lewis publicist Candi Cazau declined comment when reached by the AP. Earlier, she said Lewis never agreed to any appearance _ recorded or live _ after the MDA announced in August he wouldn't take part in the show or be its chairman.
Lythgoe and co-host Jann Carl said during the show that Lewis "retired."
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. The co-hosts' remarks during the show were the first time the MDA has addressed Lewis' departure since it was announced, and telethon spokesman Jim Brown declined further comment about the split.
Lewis' absence ended a 45-year run in which he raised $1.66 billion.
The fundraiser raised $58.9 million last year, but was shortened this year from 21 1/2 hours.
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."
Buy 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."
The Lewis-less telethon began airing live on the east coast Sunday night with an opening number featuring young dancers performing to David Guetta's "Titanium," with an introduction from Abbey Umali, the organization's tween goodwill ambassador.
Lythgoe, Carl and co-hosts Nancy O'Dell and Alison Sweeney then spent five minutes after being introduced talking about Lewis and his lifelong legacy felt by the telethon, the MDA and everyone who participates in the charity's pushes for neuromuscular research, clinics and summer camps for youngsters known as "Jerry's Kids."
Lythgoe said during his opening comments that Lewis, 85, seemed to be passing the torch last year when the comedian offered Lythgoe his seat as Lewis took a break and Lythgoe was coming on the air
"And Jerry, and I know you're watching, when you gave me that chair I know it's possible to sit on it, but it's isn't possible, Jerry, to replace you, sir," he said.
Later in the show's first hour, superstar singer Celine Dion mentioned Lewis again during a taped segment, referring to him as a friend as she introduced a cover performance of Journey's "Open Arms."
Other celebrities briefly mentioned Lewis throughout the show during cameos sprinkled between a variety of performances, interviews with people touched by muscular diseases and suit-clad corporate representatives touting company philanthropy and partnerships with the MDA.
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 1977, Lewis was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the telethon and the MDA.
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.
In the show's final moments, Lythgoe said; "We missed you, Jerry."
Lythgoe said he didn't know the details of Lewis' split with the MDA. But he said he knew Lewis was watching.
"As far as I'm aware, this was all with Jerry's blessing," he said.
Oskar Garcia can be reached at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia.