LAS VEGAS (AP) — The hosts of this year's Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon said Sunday that Jerry Lewis retired from the organization and its yearly fundraiser as they solicited donations and trotted out as much celebrity punch as organizers could muster in the annual program's first year without the beloved icon.
The comments about Lewis, whose name was synonymous with the telethon since it started in 1966, were the charity's first since announcing his split from the organization last month.
Lewis publicist Candi Cazau declined comment to The Associated Press when told of the statements that opened the telethon on Sunday.
Inextricably bonded to Lewis, the MDA invoked his name early and often as it sought to raise at least $1 more than the $58.9 million raised last year for neuromuscular research, clinics and summer camp for youngsters known as "Jerry's Kids."
Co-host Nigel 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.
"He made such a big point about it. 'I've never done this before,' he said," said Lythgoe, the executive producer of "American Idol." ''I didn't realize then that he was contemplating retiring.
"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. "What you have done for this organization and its families is something close to a miracle and I know that we all want to carry on your legacy."
Entertainment journalist Jann Carl followed Lythgoe by saying Lewis retired from the telethon this year.
"As Nigel just said, Jerry retired from the telethon this year, but of course, he's here with us in spirit and in heart, and we will continue to be energized and inspired by what I like to call his towering example," Carl said. "I mean that."
MDA spokesman Jim Brown declined comment beyond the hosts' remarks, but said the six-hour telethon would include more nods to Lewis.
Later, during 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."
"Jerry, you will always be a hero to the MDA families," Dion said.
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. It was a stark contrast from previous years, when the show was as much about Lewis at center stage as the donations themselves.
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.
As the program began, many viewers openly wondered about the split and how the show would be affected.
"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.
The MDA announced in August that the showbiz veteran would not take part in the annual telethon and was no longer the organization's chairman — 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.
Miller said she planned to still 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 staged at the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa in Las Vegas was shortened to six hours from 21½ hours last year. It was broadcast live to the Eastern time zone from 6 p.m.-12 a.m. EDT and tape-delayed in other U.S. zones.
Because of the rolling start times, it was not immediately clear how much the telethon was raising during the show. During the show's third hour, a marquee near comedian Carrot Top displayed a total of nearly $46 million. But 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 or be its chairman.
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.
Instead of Lewis' signature song, the finale was to include Jordin Sparks, Richie Sambora and Jon Secada, among others, singing along with 70 children from a Las Vegas choir.
Lewis raised $1.66 billion for the telethon since it started in 1966 from a single station in New York City. It was airing this year on more than 150 stations across the nation.
Oskar Garcia can be reached at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia.