LAS VEGAS – Ever not-so tactful, comedian Jerry Lewis says that he's excited to host his annual telethon for muscular dystrophy in Las Vegas — and then takes a poke at the former venues in Los Angeles, the telethon's home for the last decade.
"There's something about Los Angeles that subjugates it," Lewis, 80, told reporters Thursday on the set at the South Coast hotel-casino south of the Las Vegas Strip. "I always feel like I'm claustrophobic there."
The Labor Day telethon, which has raised $1.35 billion for the Muscular Dystrophy Association since 1966, had taken a back seat over the years to other productions at the CBS lot in Los Angeles, said association spokesman Bob Mackle.
The season finale of the hugely popular "Survivor" and then a bevy of other new shows in CBS' fall lineup meant studio executives couldn't promise a venue for the telethon until too late last year.
The daylong variety show moved last year to a temporary home at the Beverly Hilton, in Beverly Hills, but without a fully functional studio there, the decision was eventually made to move the show to Las Vegas.
"Once we lost that, then there was no real reason to stay in L.A.," Mackle said. "That opened the door wide up."
The show has been held in Las Vegas for 21 of its 40 years. Last year it raised $54.9 million, an 8 percent drop from a year earlier, mainly blamed on the shock of Hurricane Katrina. The goal every year is to raise one dollar more than the year before.
This year's lineup features many performers who have regular shows on the Strip, such as Celine Dion, Lance Burton, Clint Holmes, Rita Rudner and George Wallace. Others participating include Larry King, William Shatner, Donald Trump and the Goo Goo Dolls.
Lewis makes his home in Las Vegas, just a few blocks from the Strip. The city is where, during the 1976 telethon, Lewis was reunited by Frank Sinatra with his former comedy partner, Dean Martin, with whom Lewis had an acrimonious split 20 years earlier.
"I had cottonmouth. My legs were shaking," Lewis recalled. Then without missing a beat, "I think I peed, I'm not sure."
"It was a very meaningful time. And we talked from that point on" until Martin's death in 1995, Lewis said.
Martin had a street named after him in Las Vegas after he died. Sinatra also got a street after his death in 1998.
But Lewis is still going strong. He said researchers have told him they'd have a cure for muscular dystrophy in his lifetime.
"And I remind them, I say, `Fellas, I'm 80 years old. Do you understand? And you're telling me in my lifetime.' That's pretty close folks. We're talking four or five years. To get the cure? Jesus Christ. So you think about that and it drives you," he said.
Lewis has battled pulmonary fibrosis, a lung ailment, since 2000 and had a mild heart attack in June. He said he takes 25 pills a day for various ailments and feels fine. He said he doesn't think about who will replace him.
"I'm sure that after about 21 years and I've left the scene, they'll find somebody," he said.