- Associated Press - Monday, September 5, 2011

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Even without Jerry Lewis, the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon posted its best gain since the recession started, though the program’s longtime host was on the minds of many during the 46th annual fundraiser.

“American Idol” executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said after co-hosting Sunday’s program that he’s sorry the famed comedian didn’t participate, but the organization needs to move on to ensure the fundraiser continues.

The telethon raised nearly $61.5 million Sunday, an increase of about $2.6 million over last year, MDA officials said.

Lythgoe told The Associated Press minutes after the six-hour live broadcast ended on the east coast that he thought the 85-year-old actor would show up either during the telecast or earlier to film a taped segment of his signature song “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

“I was fully expecting him to turn up at any point and join that six hours _ and I’m sorry he didn’t,” Lythgoe told the AP. “And hopefully another year he might. I mean, he knows that he is always welcome on the telethon. It’s his baby.”

An orchestra was ready to film Lewis, but he didn’t come to the Las Vegas casino where the telethon was filmed, Lythgoe said.

Lewis publicist Candi Cazau declined comment when reached by the AP. Earlier, she said Lewis never agreed to any appearance _ recorded or live _ after the MDA announced in August he wouldn’t take part in the show or be its chairman.

Lythgoe and co-host Jann Carl said during the show that Lewis “retired.”

Lewis has not publicly said why he is no longer chairman of the MDA, or why he didn’t personally appear in this year’s telethon. The co-hosts’ remarks during the show were the first time the MDA has addressed Lewis‘ departure since it was announced, and telethon spokesman Jim Brown declined further comment about the split.

Lewis‘ absence ended a 45-year run in which he raised $1.66 billion.

The fundraiser raised $58.9 million last year, but was shortened this year from 21 1/2 hours.

Brown said early Monday that this year’s donations increased to nearly $61.5 million, the MDA’s best showing since 2008 when the recession started.

“The tremendous success of the telethon, even in a tough economy where some communities are also being challenged by natural disasters, shows that America understands and appreciates the truly rapid progress being made by MDA-funded researchers worldwide,” R. Rodney Howell, M.D., chairman of the MDA Board of Directors, said in a statement.

Lythgoe said he and other telethon hosts knew Lewis _ a man inextricably bonded to the telethon _ would be a presence even in a show that never included his voice.

“There appeared to be an elephant in the room, and it’s one that you go talk about,” Lythgoe said. “This guy is someone who’s put this whole thing together.”

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