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April 20, 2014

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With boost from audience and ‘his kids,’ impassioned Jerry Lewis closes telethon

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Tom Donoghue/www.donoghuephotography.com

Jerry Lewis.

It was a moment when you didn’t know whether to stand or cry.

So the audience did both.

We knew it would come, this powerful closing to the annual “Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon” at South Point. It had been building, blooming, for days, through Sunday’s rehearsal of “Dormi, Dormi, Dormi,” when Jerry Lewis stopped to overcome tears, and even through that night’s live rendition of the aching lullaby.

It was evident during the spirited run-through, and today’s live performance, of a five-song medley with Broadway writer and vocalist Michael Andrew, the man who has been chosen by Jerry Lewis himself to play Professor Julius Kelp and alter-ego Buddy Love in the stage adaptation of the classic comedy "The Nutty Professor."

It was there as Lewis made his customary speeches, asking -- demanding -- the audience respond to the needs of “his kids.”

You could feel it, too, just minutes before the final figure amassed for this year’s telethon spun across the tote board. A representative from the International Association of Firefighters pulled from his jacket a check for $27 million. Joined onstage by the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s remarkable National Goodwill Ambassador Abbey Umali, Lewis, his voice halting and eyes welling with tears, said, “The love in her eyes is the love you get from children. It’s the love you get from healthy children. I know the feeling of all my kids, who are so lucky to have you.”

Then a pause, during which the sniffing of those in the audience could be heard.

“I am so lucky to have you.”

Then the finish, as Lewis asked that the lights be dimmed for the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Lewis rarely makes it through the number without his voice quivering a bit. It’s the song for which he dimmed the showroom lights to close the telethon a year ago, and he asks again for a little darkness.

Lewis starts the tune and the room is quiet, muted. You think, there’s no way he can make it through.

“When you walk through a storm, keep your chin up high …”

The audience applauds, as if trying to push Lewis through the words.

“Walk on through the wind. Walk on through the rain. Though your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on, walk on ….”

The tears are wetting his face. Lewis is a masterful actor, but there is no role-playing going on here. He is holding few pages of notes, which holds to his face as a prop, as if to buy a few precious moments to steady for the finish.

The crowd stands, cheering.

“… with hope in your heart, and you'll never walk alone! You'll never walk alone!”

The orchestra finishes with one last crescendo, and Lewis bows under a sprinkling of confetti, marking the culmination of an event that raised $58,919,838, about $1.5 million less than the 2009 show. It was the sixth time in the 45-year history of the show that it fell short of the previous year’s total. But no one is using “failure” for an event that raised $59 million in a fairly exhausted economy.

Lewis is led from the stage by his friend, actor Richard Belzer, and longtime stage manager Debbie Williams. Behind the tall, blue set pieces, the 84-year-old legend is given oxygen for a couple of minutes as a precaution, as the final number is not easy to sing under even normal circumstances. He is quickly surrounded by stagehands, MDA staffers, a documentary film crew and, finally, his wife Sam. She pushes her way through to hug her husband.

Asked if she has ever seen him so emotionally overcome onstage, she says, “No, never.”

Will he be back next year?

“Oh, of course,” she says. “Unless we are… “ she pauses, then says, “putting him in the ground, he’ll be here.”

And Lewis, in his motorized scooter, is making his way to his dressing room. Everyone follows as the man of the hour, off all these hours, just keeps rolling along.

More from the show

In his dressing room after the show, Lewis showed off a tattoo of his famous caricature, printed on his left shoulder. A member of the prop department inked him Saturday night, but it’s temporary artwork. Belzer, however, has a real tattoo of Lewis on his right triceps. … There is so much more to music director Lee Musiker than the man who was chided by Lewis for having two sets of ear monitors during Sunday’s rehearsal. Musiker says he is particularly proud to work with “three masters” in his music endeavors: Lewis, during the telethon; Tony Bennett, for whom Musiker has served as music director for nearly a decade; and Barbara Cook, whose Broadway career dates to the 1950s with the original versions of “Candide” and “The Music Man.” Musiker also worked for Buddy Rich, so you know the man has some stories. … Edward said Lewis will be in New York for meetings and read-throughs for “The Nutty Professor” stage show next month. “I asked him for his blessing to do the musical, and he said, ‘I’m not giving you my blessing. I’m going to direct it, and you’re going to play the lead!’ ” Edward said. The plan is for the play to be ready for a regional theater run in the spring of 2011. … Confusion was evident for anyone who watched the telecast on KTNV Channel 13. Though this on-air confusion was largely unknown to most of those in the live audience at South Point, the KTNV broadcast plugged The Orleans by continually airing the hotel’s logo, making it appear as if the national show was originating from there rather than South Point. The Orleans was the chief sponsor of the local telecast, which did originate from the Boyd-owned hotel and featured the KTNV news crew and the Las Vegas phone bank, but many viewers were lost as to where, exactly, the show itself was being staged. I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last of this development, as South Point owner Michael Gaughan (who gave Lewis a $25,000 check today) might not be thrilled with The Orleans being promoted on local TV during a national telethon broadcast from his hotel.

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

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