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Even before the telethon began airing live on the east coast, the association’s inextricable bond to the beloved actor and comedian hung over the six-hour primetime TV production.

Hours before the show, co-host Nancy O’Dell tweeted a picture of herself with Umali. In the background, a sign had a caricature of Lewis with his signature above the words “MDA Telethon,” below a photograph of a smiling and pointing Lewis.

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 21 1/2 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. 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.

“As a labor of love, I’ve hosted the annual Telethon since 1966 and I’ll be making my final appearance on the show this year by performing my signature song, `You’ll Never Walk Alone,’” Lewis said, according to the statement.

But the statement said Lewis wouldn’t step down as chairman.

“I’ll never desert MDA and my kids,” he said.

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.

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