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In an era when the formal charity ball is all but extinct, the Carousel of Hope dances on in all its over-the-top glory.
Yes, it’s a throwback; yes, it’s not on New Hollywood’s philanthropy path; and yes, since 1978 it has raised more than $75 million for childhood diabetes care and research. About 5,000 children are being treated through programs run at its Denver hospital. That forgives a lot of over-the-topness.
The ball, with its 24th edition set for Saturday at the Beverly Hilton, has its roots in Denver, where the late Marvin Davis and his wife Barbara once lived. They began the fundraising dinner in response to the news that their youngest daughter had diabetes. When Marvin bought 20th Century Fox, the evening upped its game in terms of guests — Frank Sinatra, Henry Kissinger, Lucille Ball, Cary Grant — and decor. Trucks from Fox hauled enough props and scenery to Denver to decorate a Zanuck wedding.
“Let me tell you,” Barbara Davis said. “It’s good to own a studio.”
The way the ball works is this: It’s a night when the old guard nouveau riche from Denver, Houston and Bel-Air strut their stuff — literally, their stuff. It’s not about being discreetly wealthy. It’s about having the kind of jewelry the richest man in Texas gives his wife on their 25th wedding anniversary and having a lovely opportunity, other than an evening home alone drinking, to wear it.
Of course, the gowns are amazing, but you can see equally amazing gowns on much younger women at the Oscars. What stands out is the jewelry. Who knew emeralds came that big? And they can be linked with gold chain into a necklace/breastplate with rubies and diamonds that look like something Liz Taylor wore in “Cleopatra.”
The story goes that one late mogul gave his wife a piece of what’s referred to as “important” jewelry each time he was caught having an affair. Apparently, he was active. The widow and the jewels will be on hand Saturday.
The evening begins slowly as decked-out women of a certain age move slowly (checking one another out in microscopic detail takes time). This initial segment is the massive silent auction held in a conference room.
With a charity-dinner silent auction, it’s a sign of quality goods when professional memorabilia reps buy tickets. The pros are easy to spot: They hover near certain types of items, usually guitars signed by dead rock stars; stand hawk-eyed by their prey; wear secondhand tuxedos; speak cryptically into cell phones; and could care less what the mining tycoon’s wife is wearing but panic when she shows the slightest interest in dead rock star guitars.
The other active zone is around the art. There’s always the occasional bargain a few of the wealthy collectors spot simultaneously. The rich might dress better, but they’re no more genteel than the reps about winning.
When the auction ends, guests move to the ballroom.
Inside, there are no decorating surprises. It’s the Beverly Hilton ballroom in all its functional glory, but there is less moving around/schmoozing. Maybe it’s because the crowd is as much oil industry (Marvin was big in oil) as it is entertainment industry (he did well with Fox, better with oil). Each group tends to stay within its own hermetically sealed, tribal unit.
The evening proceeds in the time-honored manner: Clive Davis intros Barbara Davis; a live auction of a Mercedes-Benz and round-the-world trips staying at St. Regis hotels; Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, Akon, Gladys Knight and Jay Leno perform; Randy Jackson gives a humanitarian award to Quincy Jones; Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson present the Brass Ring award to Maria Shriver.
During all this, dinner is served. With it comes an almost Islamic-level, equality-of-all-mankind moment: Everyone gets BevHilton banquet food. At least it’s the chateaubriand.
On the way out the door, guests are given gift bags — as in more than one. One year there were two rolling duffel bags a person. They’re filled with more shampoo, conditioner, eye shadow, glitter eye shadow, puce glitter eye shadow, body cream conditioner and Ancient Egyptian-recipe body cream conditioner than you thought could exist.
The last step is the wait at the hotel’s valet line. Most nights this can painfully long, but Davis gets the owners of the adjacent parking lot (who historically have not had the best relations with whoever owns the Beverly Hilton) to donate its use for the night.
Having once owned a studio, it would seem, is a good thing.
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