Jerry Lewis kicks off his 26th annual Labor Day telethon to raise money for the fight against muscular dystrophy Sunday night, enthusiastic about major gains in the fight against the disease.

"Five years ago I said we could see the light at the end of the tunnel," Lewis said as he took a break in his dressing room in a giant hall at the Sahara Hotel."Today I can tell you we're in the middle of that tunnel. We've made more strides in the past five years than the previous 42 combined," he said.

Research to fight the disease has been aided by $570.7 million the telethons have raised.

"We've gained an avalanche of new information this year," said Dr. Leon I. Charash, a children's neurosurgeon from Long Island, N.Y., and chief of the medical advisory committee of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. "This wall is coming down. We're going to see daylight."

The 211/2-hour telethon, which begins at 9 p.m. EDT Sunday, will be broadcast by more than 200 stations across the United States and Canada. MDA officials say last year's show from Los Angeles was seen by 100 million viewers and raised $44,172,186.

Among the celebrities scheduled to appear were Liza Minnelli, Eddie Rabbitt, Robin Williams, Della Reese, Debbie Gibson, Wynton Marsalis, Wayne Newton, Whitney Houston, Mel Torme and Joe Williams.

Also scheduled to appear are Vic Damone, Maureen McGovern, the McGuire Sisters, Chita Rivera, Elayne Boosler, Rip Taylor, Victor Borge, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Norm Crosby and Roseanne Barr Arnold.

The 1990 show was moved to Los Angeles for better access to celebrities and state-of-the-art production facilities. However, MDA officials said live audience participation was disappointing in Los Angeles.

Ed McMahon will be serving his 26th year as anchor of the MDA telethon and Leeza Gibbons of "Entertainment Tonight" will be the co-host. John Tesh, also of "Entertainment Tonight," will serve as host in New York.

Lewis appeared euphoric about the show's return to Las Vegas, where he has lived for years. "This is going to be the best show ever," he said.

He was also upbeat about an announcement from MDA headquarters last week on a major breakthrough.

The announcement said researchers appear to have partly corrected muscular dystrophy in mice by injecting corrective genes directly into muscle tissue. The study could point the way toward eventual use of gene therapy to arrest or reverse muscular dystrophy.

The annual telethon is not without its detractors. Two former MDA poster children, Cris Matthews and Mike Ervin, have announced a nationwide campaign to boycott the telethon until Lewis is removed and the MDA's sentimental appeal is changed.

The two say they want to change the image of muscular dystrophy victims from pitiful crippled children with little hope for the future.

At last year's show, former MDA poster child John Neunzer and members of his family, along with some of his mother's co-workers, picketed the studio where the telethon originated, demanding more accountability for the money being raised.

MDA spokesman Jim Brown said Friday the organization has "heard a few rumblings" there might be some picketing at this year's show.