DENVER — "I had no idea who they were," recalled Merv Griffin as he described a chance meeting with oilman Marvin Davis and his wife, Barbara, at a Palm Springs party years ago. "I didn't know they were simple, little Denver billionaires."
It wasn't long before Griffin was visiting the Davis family in Denver and attending their annual Carousel Ball, which ranks as the fanciest and most profitable charity dance in the country. (Tickets sell for up to $2,000 apiece--for those with enough connections to get them.)
Early Days Recalled
This year, just before Griffin mounted the dais to serve as master of ceremonies for the eighth annual Carousel Ball, he remembered its early days. "There were four people on the dais. Now look what its turned into," he said, referring to the more than 100 celebrities and politicians--ranging from Cary Grant to Gary Coleman to Ted Kennedy--on the dais at Saturday night's ball.
Indeed, the stars were out in large numbers for the event, which raised an estimated $5 million for research and treatment of juvenile diabetes.
But there had been speculation before the ball that perhaps some celebrities would not be in attendance since Davis sold his 50% stake in 20th Century Fox Film Corp. three weeks ago.
The no-shows were considerable. Joan Collins, Henry Kissinger, Brooke Shields, Linda Evans, John Forsythe, Priscilla Presley, Robert Wagner, Ron Howard, Diahann Carroll, Jill St. John, Henry Winkler, Linda Gray, "Miami Vice's" Phillip Michael Thomas and a dozen or so others were among the celebrities who had planned to attend but canceled.
Whether this had anything to do with the politics of show business or was merely the result of overcommitment and unpredictable schedules, no one was saying. Or seemed to care. Those stars who did show up (Lucille Ball, Gerald and Betty Ford, Armand and Frances Hammer, Mary Lou Retton, Morgan Fairchild, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, Donna Mills, USA for Africa's Ken Kragen, Connie Selleca, Richard Dreyfuss, Marlon Jackson and what seemed like half of the supporting cast of "Dynasty" among many others), not to mention the 2,800 ball-goers who joined them, appeared to be having a terrific time.
Everyone here looked and dressed like a star, which led artist Gary Sweeney, a California native transplanted to Denver, to remark, "It looks as if a sequin factory exploded."
On singer Kenny Rogers' tux alone, there were enough sequins to rival the gowns of many women guests. Rogers performed an hour of his greatest hits, and he and his wife, Marianne, received the "High Hopes" Award from the Children's Diabetes Foundation. The organization was founded by Barbara Davis in 1977.
Berle's Comic Relief
There was plenty of comic relief throughout the evening as guests heard Milton Berle declare, "If a bomb were dropped here tonight, show business would go on as usual."
And the audience laughed heartily as Berle thanked hosts Barbara Davis ("She has a black belt in shopping") and her hefty husband Marvin ("Sitting here eating a Buick") for all their work.
The Davises are obviously well enough loved here to be considered acceptable targets for humor. Lucille Ball, a longtime friend of the couple and a supporter of the ball since its inception, got to the podium and couldn't remember Marvin Davis' name. "It's not that you're hard to see," she quipped. "I thought of four other Davises."
And Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) told the audience, "Some of you may wonder how Denver came to be known as the Mile High City. It's quite simple. Marvin wanted it that way."
Davis and his wife also wanted something that their money has thus far not been able to buy--a cure for their 17-year-old daughter Dana's diabetes and that of all other children who suffer from the disease. So beginning with a small circle of friends, they produced the first Carousel Ball eight years ago with the hope of finding a cure.
"My wife has 400 people (volunteers) working for her. And on Monday, they start working on next year's ball," beamed Davis as he hosted a luncheon at his Devonshire Heights home on Saturday afternoon before the ball.
Davis refused to discuss his sale of Fox, rumors that he may purchase another studio or rumors that he may buy a major-league baseball team for Denver, saying: "I'm just talking about the ball this weekend." He did not even want to discuss the impact the Carousel Ball has had on Denver (many contend that after the Rocky Mountains, the ball is Colorado's best-known tourist attraction and that it has been a key factor in helping the city shed its "cow town" image). "This is the place where the No. 1 center in the world for diabetes is," Davis emphasized, referring to the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes. "It started out with 40 patients. It now has 1,300."