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Unstoppable

The commander stands in her silver chanel ballet slippers and surveys the battlefield.

Out there, it is still quiet and dark and empty.

The first skirmishes will commence just past sunset on Oct. 15. The battlefield will be brilliant with explosions of light, and clamorous with the roar of large-caliber buzz. Halle Berry, Sting, Sidney Poitier, Oprah Winfrey and Elton John will reach the front lines through a glitzkrieg gantlet of paparazzi. Elizabeth Taylor has promised to reenlist.

The struggle for field position will be hand-to-hand; important people have been known to send their assistants sneaking onto the battlefield to switch the numbers on tables to get their superiors closer to the action.

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All this the commander knows, for she has waged this campaign 14 times before. The war zone is the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel; her weapon, the Carousel of Hope Ball; her fight, against juvenile diabetes.

This ball of hers is the superlative-buster, the 800-pounder on the charity calendar, the biggest, richest, puttin'-on-the-ritziest, arguably the most successful and longest-running good-deed society event in town--so large and lavish that it’s only given every other year, lest the charity tap get tapped dry.

In mainline Old Hollywood and some of what remains of mainline old money in Los Angeles, the Carousel of Hope ball is referred to glibly as the Oscar night of its ilk. It’s a facile phrase but not a very precise one, the differences being of kind as well as degree. Case in point: Women who go to the Oscars may borrow their jewels, Cinderella-like, from the vaults of Van Cleef & Arpels or Fred Leighton; women who go to the Carousel Ball open their safes and wear their own. And to put it baldly, a lot of the people who go to the Oscars are the hired help--exalted, but hired. The people at the Carousel Ball often are or have been their bosses. And where the Oscars are essentially a high-wattage office party, over time the chairs at the Carousel of Hope have been filled by players who may only encounter one another because Barbara Davis got them to say “yes”: Fergie, the Duchess of York, presidents Ford and Reagan, Wayne Gretzky, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Oliver Stone, Patty Hearst, Ted Kennedy.

The supreme commander of all this is a trim woman of 71, perhaps the last grande dame hostess in Los Angeles. Barbara Davis has been married for 51 years to Marvin Davis, a Denver oil billionaire who bought 20th Century Fox Studios in 1981. His wife was an unstoppable Molly Brown, airdropped out of Denver and onto the top of the Hollywood heap. The first party she threw here was a little do for the Queen of England, on Sound Stage 9 of her husband’s movie studio, a celebfest for which Davis hired some of the same party hands--the valet parking company, the party-rentals firm--that she still uses nearly 20 years later.

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She is the mother of five, the grandmother of 14, and up close has a chivvyingly fond, motherly manner to her. Lunching with her, you just know that if you had trouble wrangling a bit of food on your plate, she would cheerily lean over and cut it up for you. But it’s the mom-in-field-marshal mode that explains why Barbara Davis’ ball goes on and on, where other charity events may soar and then sink.

Her film-producer son, John Davis, says she is “a mother on a mission ... She’s got a velvet glove with an iron fist underneath.” That she goes about it carrying a pale blue, four-figure Hermes Kelly bag clenched in a hand glittering with a band of brilliant-white first-water diamonds makes it no less a crusade.

Marvin Davis was a Denver oil gajillionaire in the 1970s when the youngest of the Davises’ five children, 7-year-old Dana, was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. “Fix it,” said Marvin, with a rich man’s certainty. When he found it couldn’t just be “fixed,” he gave his wife a million dollars--the first of many millions he’d give, as it turned out--to start a hospital to get about fixing it.

A quarter-century later, there is the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes in Denver, where more than 25 doctors treat 4,000 children and their families each year. Some of the children are flown in gratis from as far off as Chile and are treated for free. To support the center’s work and research for a cure, there is the Children’s Diabetes Foundation.

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In 25 years, more than $60 million has found its way to the foundation and a few other diabetes groups. Perhaps $20 million of that is from Marvin Davis’ own pockets. Most of the rest is the box office from the Carousel Ball, the ticket sales and objets de luxe that movie stars and auto dealers and jewelers have parted with to help Barbara Davis’ cause, and also, conveniently, their own cause: to keep their names or their goods in the papers and themselves on the right guest lists.

The first ball, in Denver, raised all of $210,000. To inject a frisson into that first event, Davis ducked into a Denver jeweler and bought a gold Rolex, “which I thought at the time was the biggest deal in the whole world.” That night, Lucille Ball’s husband, Gary Morton, held up the watch to auction it off. Nobody bid. Undaunted, he kept raising the ante, pointing at nonexistent bidders, faking like mad and ending up buying the watch himself.

These days the auction offers nearly 500 items worth more than $1.5 million: an hour one-on-one with Shaquille O’Neal, opening bid $25,000; a work by artist Julian Schnabel, opening bid $10,300; a $75,000 Cadillac XLR; a gift-certificate dinner in Vail, on the presumption that you can get there on your own and frequently do. There are items that Davis has turned down--chiefly on grounds of taste, most memorably a divorce package from a high-priced attorney--but not many.

Her work succeeds, she says, “because it matters to me. It’s not just a charity, it’s not just an event, it’s my child’s life, it’s the life of so many other people like her.”

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Like a Rose Parade, the ball takes a year to pull off, which is one reason it’s biennial. Davis also doesn’t like putting the touch on people every single year. And there’s a third reason, says her son John: “I think my father would tell you he’s endured 12 years of her up late at night, sitting next to him, talking on the phone, working on the ball, working on the center or raising money, and he says it gets especially tense at times. About now, he doesn’t have a chance to get a word in edgewise with her.”

Over the months, elements click slowly into place like the tumblers of a Mosler safe. Snagging a big entertainer comes early; that one magical name may be the jewel-like pebble that unleashes the avalanche of acceptances. And if Star A knows Star B is coming, Star A will make sure to be there--out of comradeship or competition, it doesn’t matter, just as long as the check clears.

All this Davis finesses with “such polite and charming steel.” So says her admirer and friend of decades’ standing, Merv Griffin, who emceed several Carousel Balls and is hosting this one. He stands first and perhaps most consistently generous among the ranks of her volunteers, for he gives her the use of his Beverly Hilton Hotel and underwrites some of the gala. (This means Davis has two of the city’s richest men in her corner: the L.A. Business Journal puts Davis at No. 2 in L.A.'s top 50, with $6.4 billion, and Griffin at No. 20, with $1.2 billion.)

Griffin has seen her in Carousel Ball mode: “Suddenly a very firm look comes on her face and she says, ‘That’s the way I want it,’ and she’s always right. If Barbara hadn’t been what she is today, the great hostess of Beverly Hills, she would have been some kind of a producer.” Or a great politician, or telemarketer. If Barbara Davis is calling you for a favor, or to thank you for one, odds are it is Davis on the phone, not some aide. (A wise burglar breaking into the Davis mansion would pass up the silver and head straight to Barbara’s Rolodex.) When she sells a table at the ball--top price $100,000--she does it herself. “Sometimes you feel like you’re being a pain in the neck and you probably are, but . . . .” she trails off, her cause being justification enough.

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Diabetes is a grisly ailment, stealing limbs and kidney function and eyesight. Dana Davis was legally blind for a year before multiple laser surgeries saved her vision. Children with diabetes may inject themselves with insulin four times a day; the shock-value of the sight of a preschooler in a frilly dress sticking a needle in her arm is why such pictures are on the cover of Davis’ foundation reports.

In a quarter-century, Davis has learned to spiel about diabetes--about receiver cells and pancreatic function--like an M.D. on grand rounds. She can deliver a brief on insulin varieties with the patter of a pharmaceutical rep. In a perfect world, she’d like to squeeze in a medical seminar at every Carousel Ball, between the shrimp salad and baked Alaska. But she knows her audience better than that.

If they want to read about diabetes, there’s a program, thick as an Aspen phone book with congratulatory ads from pharmaceutical companies, film folk, couture houses and other people’s charities, at $2,500 per “platinum page.” But once her guests are there, “I want them to have a fun evening"--the more fun, the more big names, the likelier they’ll write their checks and come back again in two years.

“I’ve been to a few evenings where they’ve had the doctors stand up making speeches and speeches about things that people don’t understand, and you know what? Better the doctors talk to each other, seriously, and make progress.” (So they do, at a seminar in the hotel the same day as the ball, updating one another on research while le tout Los Angeles is struggling into its Spandex foundation garments and spangles.)

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It troubles Davis not at all that some of the 1,350 people who will swan into the Beverly Hilton ballroom in nine days’ time don’t know diabetes from dengue fever. “I think that’s just fine. They’ve given a lot of money, they’re there to have a good time,” she says with a shrug in her voice.

John Davis is a producer--his latest project is an Eddie Murphy film, “Daddy Day Care"--and he recognizes a kindred soul in his mother. “She’s a showman. She realizes if you’re going to continue to get people to pay $50,000 for a table or $5,000 for a seat, there’s a lot of competing [charity] opportunities in this town. You have to give people something to make them want to come back.”

How Barbara Davis does this is by navigating the tangled Gordian knot of friendships and patronage and favors and courtesies that thread their way through the circles and loops within loops of big names and big money in area codes from 310 to 212. Some small for-instances: singer Kenny Rogers played the ball twice in Denver, and in 1984 the Davises bought his Beverly Hills estate, The Knoll--a place so vast that Bob Newhart once walked in and asked, “Where’s the gift shop?” A guest cottage at The Knoll was rented for a time by Lionel Ritchie, who sang at a Carousel Ball. Henry Kissinger, a Carousel Ball fixture, served on Fox’s board. Sting is playing next week, for free, along with Elton John and B.B. King; the Davises just rented Sting’s Malibu beach house.

Davis had been trying for years to get Elton John, but in June 2001, after he sang “Happy Birthday” at a friend’s party in London, Davis buttonholed him again and asked, “Would you do the Carousel Ball next year? I really need you and it would mean so much to us, and he said, ‘I’m there.’ ” (Getting one evening when both Elton John and Sting could make it is the reason the 2002 ball is on a less-than-chic Tuesday night.)

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What with those quids pro quo, and the volunteers (from Emmy winners to gift-bag stuffers), the Carousel of Hope comes in with a high-yield, low-overhead bottom line--maybe 20% to 25% of the take going to pay for what cannot be donated, the rest to diabetes charities, estimates Christine Lerner, the executive director of the foundation. The Carousel Ball of 2000 took in close to $6 million, including $1.5 million from Marvin Davis, and netted about $4.5 million. By Hollywood’s oh-poor-me accounting standards, the Carousel Ball’s net points are dazzling.

People rarely say no to Barbara Davis. Merv Griffin, who long ago happily succumbed to her siren song, says when she meets someone new, “It’s almost, ‘How do you do. Nice to meet you. Would you like to come to the Carousel Ball?’ ”

Sponsorship? No? Then how about buying a table? All right, what about something for our gift bags, 1,500 of them. The bags are a Davis hallmark, “lovely parting gifts,” as the game-show hosts would put it, the take-away tangibles that even the rich covet. At the last Carousel Ball, someone stole a truck full of the gift bags, and even after he abandoned it in a chase, ran off with a few of the bags.

This year there will be three gift bags, crammed like pinatas with goods--trinkets from MAC cosmetics, a teeth-whitening kit from Rembrandt, a Barbie doll, a Christopher Radko Carousel Ball Christmas ornament--all coaxed from companies by Davis and her committee, who sometimes put the potential giver in a competitively charitable frame of mind by telling what some of the others are giving. After 11 p.m. on Oct. 15, the line of guests heading for cars will look like well-heeled refugees, loaded down with bags. Home Depot has agreed to donate wheelbarrows to help get the loot to the boots of the BMWs and Jaguars.

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Merv Griffin knows why so many companies give so much: “She’s their best customer!” Saks and Neiman Marcus give window space to the celebrity-painted plates by the likes of Oprah and Britney Spears and John Travolta and Chris Rock that will be auctioned off Oct. 15. Sotheby’s is throwing a party Wednesday to exhibit the art and photographs from 60 artists and celebs, from Richard Meier to Ringo Starr. Then there are the corporate $100,000 sponsors such as Chopard, the luxury jeweler; General Motors; American Airlines; Guess? Inc.; and Toys R Us, whose chairman is an old Denver friend of the Davises

Barbara Davis practices the art, the sport, the science of mutual patronage. “You’ve got to go to people that you also reciprocate with. Let’s face it, if somebody gives to me, I give to them.” She explains her technique: “I never bother anybody where I don’t go to shop. In other words, I only go [for donations] to places where I give them business--which is everywhere,” she says, mocking her Olympic-caliber shopping reputation. “But if they string me along, I just don’t go in . . . and they know it. And usually I get a phone call, ‘We found we can do this.’ And that’s not nice but . . . . I really think that if you patronize them, they’ve got to care about you. As I say, this is not just an event, it’s a lifetime’s caring.”

Late in the summer, team Davis meets at the Beverly Hilton. “This is the year,” Davis is saying, “that we attack people, and anybody we know that has anything, we ask them for it.”

Someone arrives with a souvenir T-shirt from another charity fund-raiser. “There’s a lot of sponsors on this shirt,” daughter Nancy notes. “Oh, let’s grab their sponsors!” her mother says. This is classic Davis, trying to squeeze more money into her foundation’s coffers, and everyone laughs. ( At one point Davis’ cell phone rings. It is Viacom chief Sumner Redstone, whom she invites to dinner a few nights later along with his fiancee, Paula, who will no doubt wind up as one of the nearly 600 names on a Carousel committee.)

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Nancy sits on her mother’s right. She has multiple sclerosis and has launched her own benefit gala, the Race to Erase MS. On Barbara’s left is the show’s producer, George Schlatter. He is a force behind productions ranging from “Laugh-In” to the George Bush Deux inaugural--neither of those for free, he will have you know, unlike the Carousel of Hope, to which he donates his own and staff hours, so many that he can’t reckon, because “my accountant would have a stroke.”

Around these tables is the core committee, the Carousel Ball cabinet, which comprises several hundred years of ties and loyalties. Christine Lerner left a radio production assistant’s job to help Davis out for “a few days.” A quarter-century later she is executive director of the foundation and Davis’ alter ego. The Carousel invitation list, too, is deep with old friends from Houston and Denver, and actors whose stars may have dimmed in the public’s eyes but not in Davis’.

Of course, a long list of friends brings its own set of problems. The ball is weeks away and Davis is already bracing for the worst part, the morning after--the seating chart fallout. “To do the seating is the most death-defying job in the world. You don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings . . . I want everybody to have the best time they’ve ever had, and they’re not going to have that best time if they don’t like their seats.” So even an hour before the doors open, she will be down in the ballroom, still fussing over the seating. Some people are invariably stuck near the back, or in the foyer, watching it all on monitors, and the next day, early, the complaints begin. “I just suffer. I send flowers. But . . . .” and her voice fades; it can’t be helped.

There is also a dinner committee, and regional committees for out-of-towners, and the auction committee co-chaired by 34-year-old Dana Davis, whose diabetes began all this so long ago. She teaches at a private school. She is quieter than her mother and sister, but has the silent auction drill down cold.

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The massive entertainment committee is not so much a committee as a roll call of 200-some luminaries who serve chiefly to ornament the event, for it’s absurd to think of getting a fraction of them in the same room to vote on some motion. Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Judi Dench and Pamela Anderson, Tom Hanks, Gregory Peck, Stevie Wonder, Tom Cruise (and Penelope Cruz and Nicole Kidman, separately), Sylvester Stallone, Bob Hope, Billy Crystal, Liam Neeson, Sharon Stone, Dennis Hopper, Bill Cosby, Shirley MacLaine, Shaquille O’Neal. The list is a testament to celebrity snowballing.

Davis has made this an indispensable must-show, must-go soiree spread across the society pages of two continents. But it is far from a high-voltage venue of choice for the hip, the under-35 stars and younger moguls, the way the Cinematheque event, the Vanity Fair Oscar party or certain AFI awards are. This is old-school society, with an impeccably mannered hostess and a laudable cause that gives protective coloring to having it and flaunting it. Actress Jennifer Tilly, casting a covetous eye on diamond earrings auctioned a few balls ago, once neatly conveyed the formula that makes it all right to put on the ritz with a self-congratulatory conscience: “It’s for a good cause, so I can buy jewelry and feel like Mother Teresa.”

But even Mother Teresa couldn’t hold this fickle crowd for three hours, and Schlatter knows it. The Show is fraught with crisis second only to The Seating Chart: every time, same problems, different characters.

If there’s anything tougher than getting stars to do a favor, Schlatter likes to say, “it’s getting them to do you a short favor.” In the old Denver days, Kenny Rogers sang for an hour for bedazzled Denverites. Angelenos would be fumbling for the valet claim check after three songs, and Davis knows it.

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Nancy Davis says they should make sure Elton John, Sting and B.B. King sing familiar tunes, not just their new stuff. “I think it’s real important we get the songs that are the hits that people in this audience like.” David Foster, the musical director who also donates his labors, warns her, “Well, you’re not going to get that from Sting. He’s already wanting to do jazz, that’s all he’s been doing.” It turns out fine because Sting’s new stuff is, in fact, arrangements of old stuff like “A Foggy Day in London Town,” which will go over smashingly with this crowd. Problem resolved.

As the show winds down, something curious happens in L.A. that happens almost nowhere else. No matter how good a time people are having, they want to get out of there and home by midnight, or even 11 o’clock, perhaps to see themselves on the late news. One local fund-raising group, the Library Foundation, gently mocks this quirk by giving an annual “Stay Home and Read a Book Ball”; send in your check and just stay in that night and read.

That would never be Barbara Davis’ style. At home at The Knoll, when midnight has come and gone, when the signature pink couture ballgown is hung up and the diamonds are back in the safe, she’ll go to bed, and wake up not to the morning after the Carousel Ball, but to Day One of the countdown to the next.

*

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Times staff writer Patt Morrison is a former columnist for the magazine.


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