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October 21, 2014

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As Jerry Lewis accepts Australia’s top honor, rare MDA Telethon video surfaces

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John Katsilometes

Jerry Lewis mugs behind his famous director’s chair at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, Aug. 29, 2014, as he is admitted as a Member of the Order of Australia, the highest civilian honor awarded by that country. Lewis was recognized for his work with the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation of Australia.

Australia Honors Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis is shown with his wife, Sam, and son Chris at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, Aug. 29, 2014, as he is shown his Member of the Order of Australia medal, which is the highest civilian honor awarded by that country. Lewis was recognized for his work with the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation of Australia. Launch slideshow »

There was once a time when the entire country was tuned in to Jerry Lewis on Labor Day Weekend, but on Friday afternoon it was a handful of dignitaries who joined Lewis at Reynolds Hall in the Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

The audience might have been small in numbers, but it was enormous in Lewis’ heart and hugely significant in one of his favorite countries, Australia. Lewis was honored as a Member of the Order of Australia, the highest award bestowed on a civilian by that country.

A beaming and, at times, mugging Lewis received a gold medal, a lapel pin and a high volume of praise from the Australian officials who made the trip to honor Lewis for his work in fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation. Lewis has toured that country and raised several millions of dollars for MDF. The Aussie charity is not formally linked to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, with whom Lewis raised more than $2 billion in a 45-year philanthropic partnership.

The Lewis-MDA relationship fractured after the 2010 MDA Labor Day Telethon at South Point, when, over a course of months, it became evident that Lewis was being cut loose from the annual telethon and organization. What’s left of what was long a 21 1/2-hour entertainment odyssey is this year’s MDA “Show of Strength” variety show, which airs for two hours beginning at 9 p.m. Sunday on ABC (KTNV Channel 13 in Las Vegas).

As has been the case in each MDA Labor Day telecast since Lewis’ final telethon in 2010, Lewis is not taking part in the fundraising telecast. It is a safe bet that he has not even watched a moment of the telethon since walking offstage for the final time at South Point.

As this year’s show takes shape, with Mirage headliner Terry Fator the leading representative from Las Vegas, a two-hour documentary of Lewis helming the show in 1989 has surfaced. This footage, culled from a report by the then-syndicated celebrity show “A Current Affair” about that year’s telethon, was posted on YouTube a couple of weeks ago. The bootleg doc shows Lewis, in top form, backstage at Cashman Center rehearsing, joking, chiding, kissing babies and stretching duct tape across zippered tap shoes to protect his expensive tuxedos.

Lewis is shown informally, wearing shorts and T-shirts from a variety of NFL teams, and there is a classic moment of Frank Sinatra bantering with Lewis via satellite from the telethon’s outpost in Atlantic City, then rehearsing “Mack the Knife” as Lewis watches.

The footage is shot in black and white, all the way, with Lewis at the center.

Reached today at his Las Vegas home, Lewis said he had not seen any of the footage since it was shot 25 years ago. He has a clip now, sent in email, and this might be the first time, ever, that Jerry Lewis spends Labor Day at home watching the MDA Telethon.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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