How Barbara Davis' Carousel of Hope Ball Became a Biannual $2 Billion Fundraiser

Carousel of Hope Ball benefitting Barbara Davis Center for Diabetes - Getty - H 2016
Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images

The gala to fight childhood diabetes — spurred by Marvin and Barbara Davis' daughter's diabetes diagnosis — draws Hollywood royalty (including, this year, presenter Anjelica Huston) as it supports the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes in Denver: "No one is turned away because of money,” says Davis. “Our arms are open.”

If Kickstarter is at one end of the fundraising spectrum, then the Carousel of Hope Ball is at the other. This is an old-school, black-tie charity dinner — maybe the last of the breed — where stars are honored, big-name singers perform (Beyonce, Paul McCartney and Whitney Houston have appeared) and Candy Spelling feels comfortable wearing the Important Jewelry. The dinner raises in the neighborhood of $2 million bieneally

The ball's story begins with the late Denver-based oil magnate Marvin Davis (who went on to buy and sell 20th Century Fox) and his wife, Barbara, learning that their then-7-year-old daughter, Dana, had diabetes. When Barbara called Marvin from the doctor's office with the diagnosis, his response was straightforward: "Get it fixed."

Marvin and Barbara Davis in 1980 at the dedication of the Davis Center in Denver.

There's a story, perhaps apocryphal but having the ring of the truth, that a wealthy woman in New York once wanted to establish her place in Manhattan's charity world and complained that "all the good diseases have been taken." Davis didn't have that problem. Type 1 diabetes, also known as childhood diabetes, was dropped in her lap. "You find out your daughter has this terrible disease and there's almost nothing that can be done," says the Hollywood doyenne. "It tears your heart out. What would any mother do?"

What Davis did was begin the process that led to the building of the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes in Denver. Opened in 1980, the center is a world-class facility that conducts research and provides treatment for 7,000 patients worldwide. "No one is turned away because of money," says Davis. "Our arms are open."

Davis spoke at the opening of the center in May 1980.

While the ball began in Denver nearly 40 years ago, it kicked into high gear after Marvin bought 20th Century Fox in 1981 for $722 million and moved the gala to Los Angeles — where the Davises' Palm Springs neighbor Frank Sinatra performed. (It now alternates between Denver and L.A. each year.)

"You own a studio and suddenly everyone is taking your calls," says Davis. "Movie stars, royalty — you can't believe who's willing to talk with you."

Even 12 years after her husband's death, the event continues to lure A-list honorees thanks to its worthy cause and influential leading lady, who this year has lined up Anjelica Huston to present a Brass Ring award to Sherry Lansing. Carol Bayer Sager will present to David Foster and Quincy Jones to Jane Fonda. Sidney Poitier will receive a lifetime achievement award from Denzel Washington, and Jamie Foxx and Idina Menzel (she of the "Let It Go" pipes) will perform.

Sinatra performed at the first L.A. fundraiser in 1981.

"One reason I support the center is because of the work they do with scientists," says Lansing. "The research they've done has really pushed the frontier on how diabetes is treated."

Dana Davis, 48, now executive director of the related Children's Diabetes Foundation, notes that the center has been a leader in stem cell treatments, care in the Hispanic community and development of new diagnostic tools.

"This night is all about the fight against diabetes," says Barbara Davis, who goes for the classics when planning her fundraiser but focuses on the cutting-edge in her organization's efforts. She has high hopes for the new artificial pancreas that awaits FDA approval and is being tested at the center. The device would automatically control blood sugar. Says Davis: "I'm not giving up until there's a cure."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.