Barbara Davis Celebrates 40 Years Of Hosting The Hottest Charity Event In Tinseltown By Honoring Robert De Niro

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Barbara Davis is a hard figure to miss. Biennially in Los Angeles for the past 40 years, the 87-year-old philanthropist has descended the stairs at The Beverly Hilton swathed in a floaty, dreamy, candy-colored organza gown (typically an Oscar de la Renta). Surrounded by her A-list bevy of friends—who include Hillary Clinton, Stevie Wonder, George Clooney, Sir Sidney Poitier and Clive Davis (no relation)—Davis hosts her 32nd Carousel of Hope Ball, the charity event of the season, raising awareness for diabetes and raising funds for clinical care and research at her Barbara Davis Center for Diabetes.

At each event (which also takes place in Denver every other year), where it originated, she also honors one special individual for his or her humanitarian efforts and continued support of the cause. This year, that person is Robert De Niro, who will receive the “Brass Ring Award”—named as such for the elusive brass ring that carousel riders would try to catch when the ride first rose to popularity. We sat down with Davis to discuss the cause, her decision to honor De Niro and why being the belle of this particular ball is the most significant moment of all.

Tom Hanks, Davis, Jay Leno and George Schlatter
Tom Hanks, Davis, Jay Leno and George Schlatter

Photo Credit: Alex J. Berliner

Why is curing children’s diabetes such a personal cause for you?

Curing diabetes is such a personal cause for me because my daughter Dana, at age 7, developed Type 1 diabetes, and it became the most important thing in my life. I was shocked, frightened and determined to give her a long, healthy life. I knew nothing about diabetes and certainly learned very quickly what a devastating disease it is, which can rob a person of their sight, their limbs; amputation is a terrible complication of diabetes, as is heart disease. Diabetes can also cause heart attacks, heart disease, blindness, strokes and kidney failure. So to save my daughter and other children like her, this was why Marvin, my late husband, and I started the Barbara Davis Center for Diabetes where we now treat 7,000 patients from around the world annually, and we have made the most wonderful advances.

Where did the event’s title come from?

I dreamed of children riding a carousel, and when they reached the brass ring we would have a cure for diabetes, so we named the event The Carousel of Hope Ball. We are reaching for that brass ring, and it is getting closer and closer.

Maria Shriver, Davis and Rita Wilson attend the 2010 Carousel of Hope ball
Maria Shriver, Davis and Rita Wilson attend the 2010 Carousel of Hope ball

Photo Credit: Alex J. Berliner/AB Images

How do you decide who to honor each year?

I carefully think of people—who are the people who are most concerned in helping others—and we have reached the decision each year on the most caring person who would make a difference. Every honoree has made a huge difference in caring for and bringing health to everybody not just in the United States but around the world.

Why did you choose Robert De Niro to receive your Brass Ring Award this year?

Robert is a great actor and a great philanthropist, and has done so many wonderful philanthropic deeds. He is truly a great talent.

What did he say to you when he found out he was receiving the award?

He said it is a great honor to receive this award and was very pleased to be asked and to be able to take time out of his schedule to accept. I am very proud to have him as a talent, as a friend and as a person who wants to help others.

Davis with daughter Nancy
Davis with daughter Nancy

Photo Credit: Kathy Hutchins /

What’s in store for this year’s gala?

It will be a very, very special evening, the 40th anniversary of the Carousel Ball, and I would have to say, “That’s what friends are for.” We have the same people today who started with us years ago. Jay Leno as the emcee, David Foster doing the music, George Schlatter as the producer, Clive Davis and Quincy Jones as the music directors and Sharon Stone is doing this year’s auction. These are all friends who have been together since the first Carousel Ball, and this is our 32nd Carousel Ball over four decades. I am so proud to say these people are truly dear friends. They have lent their talents, and we are proud to announce that they are very truly very dear friends. Joining David Foster’s music presentation are Babyface, who has been with us many times, and the incredible Gladys Knight.

We promise you a beautiful evening, and I am so proud to say that the film industry, the television networks and the music companies are tremendously supportive and have also been with us from when we started. I give thanks to all of them, and I can’t tell you how much their loyalty means to the fight against diabetes and bringing us so much closer to that brass ring. We are also so honored to welcome new sponsors and are so honored that they want to help us find a cure for diabetes. Thank you―thank you―we will have a cure, and until then, we have so many wonderful ways of delivering insulin and caring for our patients. This has been a beautiful journey. And again, I say thank you.

Why do you think Carousel of Hope is often named one of the top benefits in Southern California—what sets it apart?

I think we all work so hard, and we have all been together for so many years. We are a family.

Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, and Barbara Davis at the 30th Carousel of Hope Gala benefitting the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes
Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, and Barbara Davis at the 30th Carousel of Hope Gala benefitting the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes

Photo Credit: Benjamin Shmikler/ABImages

It is the Ball’s 40th anniversary. Has there been one particular event in Carousel of Hope’s history that has the most significance for you? Why? Which one?

I would say that every Carousel Ball has been very significant; perhaps I could say that the very first Carousel Ball will always be very special in my heart because Frank Sinatra was performer No. 1. So many people and friends came out of the goodness of their hearts to support us, including President Reagan and President Gerald Ford. I really saw my dream become a reality, I thank everyone from day one until today. Among other people to thank, I thank you Sir Elton John, I thank you, Sir Paul McCartney, I thank the late Whitney Houston, my beautiful Stevie Wonder, my dear, dear friend Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Sting, Jennifer Lopez, Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, George Clooney, Maria Shriver… so many people who have such busy lives and such huge successes, they gave of their talents and from their hearts to fight this terrible disease, which is a fight that we are winning.

Were you always driven by a need to be philanthropic?

I would have to say yes―I always love to reach out and help someone who needs a hand.

What to you is the greatest luxury in life?

My husband, my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.