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June 1, 2016

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Jerry Lewis returns — briefly — as MDA spokesman

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The Associated Press

Frank Sinatra’s surprise introduction of Dean Martin at the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon at the Sahara in September 1976.

Jerry Lewis

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Jerry Lewis with his daughter Danielle, The Gazillionaire, Melody Sweets and Joy Jenkins after a performance of “Absinthe” on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, at Caesars Palace.

Call it an encore performance for a show that lasted 61 years.

Jerry Lewis is back as a spokesman on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, having recorded a video in support of the MDA’s new logo and tagline. The clip is to be used in a formal unveiling of the MDA logo and its new motto, “For Strength, Independence & Life,” during an event Friday at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Lewis is not attending the party, which will be webcast on the MDA website (MDA.org) at 9:30 a.m. Friday. Those scheduled to appear are “Today” host Natalie Morales, TNT sportscaster Ernie Johnson, “Small Town Big Deal” host Jann Carl and Jordan Smith, Season 9 winner of “The Voice.”

The video statement marks the first appearance by Lewis in support of the MDA since September 2010, when he closed the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon with a wrenching rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The following May, the MDA announced that the show would be shortened to a six-hour production, from 21 1/2 hours. In August 2011, the MDA made another formal declaration — that Lewis was no longer going to host the telecast nor serve in any capacity for the organization.

Lewis had famously feuded with Gerald C. Weinberg, the longtime MDA president and CEO, who stepped down in December 2011. Though the organization said Lewis “resigned” his post, it was evident that he was forced out, and he has gone on to raise money and awareness for the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation in Australia, a group unrelated to the MDA.

In August 2014, in a ceremony at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, Australian officials presented Lewis with its Member of the Order of Australia, the highest award bestowed on a civilian by that country.

Back in the States, a new regime has allowed Lewis to reconsider his formal support of the MDA. He spent 61 years with the organization and helped raise more than $2 billion in his groundbreaking run as host of the event, which was televised nationally beginning in 1966.

In that time, the telethon became an annual TV tradition with an array of celebrities contributing their time and talent. The 1976 telethon at the Sahara marked the moment when Lewis was reunited with his legendary performing partner Dean Martin, an event orchestrated by Martin.

More recently, the telethon was cut to six hours for the 2011 telecast (retitled “Show of Strength”), then reduced to three hours from 2012-2014. MDA announced last year that it would discontinue the broadcast to investigate more contemporary means of fundraising (especially by using online and social media platforms), and Lewis never did appear once last time to say goodbye.

But a change in regime led to a change in Lewis’ recent relationship with the MDA.

“They had reached me a couple of times about this, and we recorded it about two months ago, I think it was,” Lewis said today during a phone chat. “I did it because the new head man (MDA President Steven M. Derks) is a very nice guy.”

In the video, Lewis looks into the camera and says, “I think it’s great that the MDA has a new look and tagline. We’ve got to keep giving strength, independence and life to all the kids and adults who are fighting muscular dystrophy and related life-threatening diseases.”

It’s a message he delivered, impassionedly, throughout his history with the MDA. Asked if this collaboration would lead to any future, formal endorsements of the MDA, Lewis chuckled and said, “No, I gave it 61 years. … But I am happy to have done this.”

Lewis is approaching his 90th birthday, which is March 16. He continues to perform one-off shows across the country, retelling his story with a boost from film and TV clips and home movies from his personal collection. Last Friday, he was at Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center at the Villages in Orlando, Fla.

How was it?

“It was great — 2,700 screaming people,” Lewis said. “I was supposed to do an hour and 20 minutes, and I wound up staying for two hours and 30 minutes. I couldn’t get enough of it.”

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

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