LAS VEGAS >> Although absent its biggest star in Jerry Lewis, the Muscular Dystrophy Association is asking millions of Americans to raise at least $1 more than the $58.9 million it took in last year during its annual Labor Day weekend telethon.
This year’s revamped fundraiser plans to trot out as much A-list punch as it can muster Sunday night as the charity works to raise money for neuromuscular research, clinics and summer camp for youngsters known as "Jerry’s Kids."
But the association’s inextricable bond to the beloved actor and comedian seemed certain to hang over the six-hour primetime TV production.
"I don’t know if it’s going to be the same," said Denise Miller, 49, of Bloomingdale, N.J., a longtime donor who said she has watched the telethon since she was a teenager, but now wonders why Lewis and the organization parted ways.
The MDA announced in August that the 85-year-old showbiz veteran would not take part in the annual telethon and was no longer the organization’s chairman. But despite intense curiosity and some criticism, neither the MDA nor Lewis have explained why their association of about six decades came to an end.
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.
Miller said she still plans to tune in and donate because she wants to support the children — a value she says she learned from Lewis.
"He provided the reason for me to believe that my money is going to a good cause," she said. "I’m not going to turn my back on the cause of what he’s built because it is, to me, valuable… But I want to see him."
The telethon to be staged at a Las Vegas hotel-casino was shortened to six hours from 21½ hours last year. It will be broadcast live to the Eastern time zone from 6 p.m.-12 a.m. EDT and tape-delayed in other U.S. zones. Final donation totals won’t be tallied until the show goes off the air in Hawaii.
Rumors flew among those close to the telethon in recent weeks that Lewis might perform the show’s final number, singing "You’ll Never Walk Alone" one final time. But Lewis publicist Candi Cazau said he never agreed to any appearance — recorded or live — after the MDA announced he wouldn’t take part in the show.
Lewis told a group of television critics just before the MDA announced the split that he would explain everything after the telethon, hinting that he plans to still raise money for muscular dystrophy work. But no news conference is scheduled, Cazau said.
MDA spokesman Jim Brown declined to say whether Lewis would even be mentioned during the show.
Still, the charity could have a tribute segment up its sleeve, and the spontaneity of live television means it’s entirely possible someone could mention Lewis during the broadcast.
Just don’t expect to see Lewis himself, Cazau said.
"He won’t show up," she said.
Several celebrities planned to appear in the show, with Celine Dion performing during the opening hour and Jennifer Lopez, Lady Antebellum and Boyz II Men making appearances. Taking over from Lewis as the show’s host will be a quartet of stars, including "American Idol" executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, Alison Sweeney of "The Biggest Loser," and entertainment journalists Nancy O’Dell and Jann Carl.
Instead of Lewis’ rendition of "You’ll Never Walk Alone," the finale was expected to include Jordin Sparks, Richie Sambora and Jon Secada, among others, singing along with 70 children from a Las Vegas choir.
Other entertainers have rushed to defend Lewis and condemn those performing in the show, including a group of comedians in Los Angeles who pushed to get Lewis reinstated. Laugh factory owner Jamie Masada said Friday that comedians would hold a Web-athon on Monday to collect proceeds for an award named for Jerry Lewis, to be given annually to top scientists working to cure muscular dystrophy.
During Wednesday night’s "Late Show with David Letterman," bandleader Paul Shaffer said Lewis’ absence seems hard to believe.
"I don’t know how a performer could go on the thing, myself," Shaffer said. "If I were going to be on it and I heard this — that Jerry isn’t even going to be there — I would not go on it. I think it’s insane."
Lewis raised $1.66 billion for the telethon since it started in 1966 from a single station in New York City. It is scheduled to air this year on more than 150 stations across the nation.
Shaffer told Letterman he had "bomb-sniffing dogs" in Las Vegas trying to find out what went wrong between Lewis and the MDA. Many viewers, including Miller, also want answers.
"If he was asked to leave … if there were something wrong, I would be totally devastated myself as a fan and a viewer, because that’s what I associate," she said. "It’s Jerry, MDA and the kids. Period."