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October 31, 2014

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At the MDA Telethon, one of the stars of the show is someone you never see

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Tom Donoghue/www.donoghuephotography.com

The 2010 Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon at South Point.

Wearing a fruit-topped costume seemingly harvested from the Carmen Miranda Collection, Charo has taken the stage. Time for the coochie-coochie. Everyone in the audience must participate in the number, and has been given plastic maracas.

And just before Charo is introduced, everyone in the audience of 350 in the decked-out South Point showroom complies by cheerfully shaking those maracas.

But one person does not have any maracas.

Jerry Lewis sits onstage, maraca-less.

Not for long, though. Debbie Williams surveys the scene and notices the host of the “MDA Labor Day Telethon” is not properly outfitted. She gives the audience a quick once-over, then moves swiftly over to Lewis’ wife, Sam, one person who would not mind surrendering one of her props for the cause. Williams hustles back to Lewis, hands the grateful host a green maraca and backpedals out of the shot.

Just in time.

As the telethon’s stage manager, Debbie Williams is the star you never see. Though the telethon is powered by dozens of onsite staffers, if any individual could be credited with making it go, it would be Williams. She seems constantly solving problems, directing traffic, putting out fires. During breaks, when Lewis’ audio drops or he’s unsure if he’s on the right mark, the call is usually, “Debbie!”

Williams has been with Lewis for 24 years, dating to the days when the show was held at Cashman Center. Her first shows were actually the cut-away productions at Caesars Palace’s Circus Maximus showroom. Though she had some experience in the industry in L.A., working with the mostly live, round-the-clock production -- and with Lewis -- would be the job that changed her life.

“It’s the kind of thing, you look back on it, and it can either make your career or break it,” she said during Sunday’s rehearsals. “If it doesn’t work, you might have a tough time in this business -- you couldn’t work with Jerry Lewis. But if you can work with him, if you can show you can work with someone of his stature and demands, it makes all the difference. I was 32 or 33 when this all started, and what it did was instill confidence in me.

“I thought, wow, I can do this.”

As a result, Williams has risen to the top of her field, as a stage director for Fox's “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” Those two shows are relatively routine assignments compared to the nonstop, unpredictable nature of the telethon, when even Lewis himself is often cut off in mid-speech so the show can remain on schedule.

“Oh, I’m done?” Lewis said as he was cut short during a bit where he was wearing a prop reading “Jerry’s Bib” and dribbling water down his front. “That’s probably just as well!”

At this writing, Williams has been working the telethon for more than 15 unbroken hours. Even in the hurricane of activity, with acts as diverse as “Viva Elvis" sharing the stage with, well, Charo, her attention remains on Lewis.

Her loyalty and affection is extraordinary, especially when considering Lewis is at once highly demanding and often unpredictable in his directives.

“I think what he likes about me, more than anything, is I know how to have fun,” Williams said. “It’s hard work, but it’s fun work. If you have worked for Jerry Lewis, you can handle anyone.”

There is a term used today for the biggest stars, which is how Williams describes Lewis in his heyday.

“He was a real rock star,” she says. “He still is.”

Notes from Sunday night’s broadcast

About five minutes before the show, the audience was instructed to give Lewis a “warm” reception upon introduction. Someone in the crowd might not have thought to do that. … Longtime MDA board member Sue Lowden was in the audience during the first three hours. … Lewis heaped praise on the cast members of “Viva Elvis” after their dazzling performance to “Blue Suede Shoes.” “Screamingly magnificent,” is how he described the Cirque du Soleil operation and even appeared on camera with the dancers to praise their characteristically tireless work ethic. Cirque officials and performers were, shall we say, aware of Lewis’ comments earlier in the week criticizing the troupe, but those around Lewis said he spoke off-handedly and has a great deal of respect for Cirque. Whatever, it was a memorable moment as Vintage Vegas shared the stage with the city’s new order of entertainment. … Lewis laughed hard at comics John Pinette and George Wallace. He’s still a big fan of good stand-ups. … Sitting in the wings, waiting his turn to go on, was Richard Belzer. His fixated grin showed reverence for the show’s star. Documentary filmmaker Gregg Barson, working on a Lewis biographical project due out in the spring, noted the “eclectic” collection of performers in the show’s green room. At one point, “Idol’s” David Archuleta, Terry Fator, Jack Jones, Norm Crosby, former Frank Sinatra music director Vinnie Falcone and Matt Goss were all present. … I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a kid more thrilled than when MDA National Goodwill Ambassador Abbey Umali met Archuleta, who caused the biggest stir backstage. … Falcone, a longtime friend of, and collaborator with, Robert Goulet, wore a black tie given to him by Goulet’s widow, Vera. … From the stage, Lewis spoke of one of his telethon co-hosts, Tony Orlando, who was emcee of the show in New York. Orlando, Lewis said, weighed 300 pounds two years ago, causing an alarmed Lewis to tell him that if he didn’t drop weight, fast, he would not only risk his career but long-term health. Lewis says Orlando, who for years has appeared on the show, weighs close to 180 now. ... Among Lewis' pre-show visitors to his dressing room: "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance" producer Nigel Lythgoe with Channel 3's Alicia Jacobs. ... The show continues today on KTNV Channel 13, closing at 3:30 p.m.

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

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