Telethon Dented By Hurricane

The Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon raised nearly $59.4 million for the Muscular Dystrophy Association - a rare decline in donations compared to the year before, attributed to power outages and other disruptions from Hurricane Frances.

Donations totaled 1.8 percent less than last year's $60.5 million.

Television stations in the Florida cities of Jacksonville, Sarasota and Gainesville canceled broadcasts of the telethon completely. Other Florida stations showed only the national portions, preventing the broadcast of local segments during which most pledges are made.

And even in areas where the TV stations were carrying the program - many viewers were too busy or just plain unable to watch it: some six million people lost power due to the hurricane.

Lewis, 78, was assisted during the 21 and a half hour fund-raiser by Ed McMahon, and the broadcast featured performances by Elton John, Oprah Winfrey, Ray Romano, Tony Orlando and others.

Lewis said the late child poet Mattie J.T. Stepanek helped the telethon to almost reach its goal of surpassing the previous year's total. Stepanek, whose inspirational verse made him a best-selling writer, died in June at age 13 from a rare form of muscular dystrophy that had also, one by one, claimed the lives of his three siblings.

This year's telethon was dedicated to his memory.

Stepanek was National Goodwill Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. His mother, Jeni, and Lewis appealed to telethon viewers to make up for lost contributions from Florida.

"Even now, Mattie continues to perform miracles," Lewis said in a statement after the telethon. "Without the love and hope that Mattie inspired in millions of Americans, there's no way we would have come so close to reaching our goal in the face of such overwhelming odds."

Only one other telethon in the 1980s failed to surpass the previous year's total.

The 39th annual telethon, based in Los Angeles, was shown on nearly 200 TV stations nationwide.