Barbara Davis Keeps the Carousel of Hope Charity Ball Turning

Stars and legends have lined up to support diabetes fundraiser for almost four decades

Barbara Davis Carousel of Hope
Kevin Scanlon for Variety

In many ways, Barbara Davis has led a charmed life.

Around the time she graduated college, the then-Barbara Levine married oil baron Marvin Davis. They settled in Denver, had five children, and lived in such wealth that they eventually became a model for the Carrington clan on the hit primetime soap opera “Dynasty.”

After Marvin acquired 20th Century Fox in 1981, Barbara and her family became Hollywood royalty.

Today, anyone who’s anyone knows the chipper octogenarian philanthropist, whose Carousel of Hope has raised more than $100 million toward children’s diabetes research. But Barbara Davis’ extraordinary philanthropic efforts arose from a challenge inside her own family.

Their youngest daughter, Dana, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 7. At first, they didn’t fully understand what she was going through. It was something that “happened to other people,” Davis recalls. But as soon as they got a clear picture of the diagnosis, her husband said one thing: “Fix it.”

“Michael [Bublé] said it perfectly: ‘This is bigger than the Oscars.’ You had Warren Beatty, Sofia Loren — he was shocked that so many people were there to support Barbara.”
David Foster

So there began a long-standing involvement with childhood-diabetes philanthropy and research. Davis founded the Children’s Diabetes Foundation in 1977. “One day, Marvin said to me, ‘How would you like to build a diabetes hospital so we can take care of Dana and all the children like her?’ And I said, ‘Yes. I would love it.’” Davis says. The result was the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes at the University of Colorado Hospital, in Denver, which treats 7,000 patients.

Davis remains charismatic, charming, and passionate as she talks about her daughter’s cause, and the illnesses her family has battled.

A year after launching the foundation, she says, the Davises started the Carousel of Hope Ball at their Palm Springs home — with some help from Frank Sinatra. “Frank said to Dana one evening at dinner, ‘Tell your mom to have a big party and I’ll come and sing and your mom can raise money for her hospital.’”

Even today, the Carousel of Hope attracts some of the biggest names in the industry. Past attendees include Elizabeth Taylor, Sean Connery, and George Clooney. One Carousel Ball mainstay is former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno — an avid Barbara Davis fan. “You could talk to her like a regular person. Even though her husband was this powerful guy, she never threw her weight around,” says Leno.

He describes her as a “character” whose naiveté makes her relatable, likable, and funny. “She would call up and say, ‘Jay, do you know this group, the Bee Gees? Do you think they would do my dinner party?’ And I would say, ‘Well, I don’t know if they do dinner parties — they play in stadiums.’ But when I went to Barbara’s house, there they were, performing right in the dining room.”

Brillant Effort
Barbara Davis’ support of the Children’s Diabetes Foundation is legendary
$100m Amount raised by the Carousel of Hope Ball
35%+ Percentage of patients at Barbara Davis Center who are uninsured but receiving care thanks to CDF
6000 Patients cared for daily at the Barbara Davis Center

Music director David Foster says the Davises changed his life, introducing him to Hollywood’s biggest and brightest. Foster recalls taking a young Michael Bublé to the Carousel Ball one year. “Michael said it perfectly: ‘This is bigger than the Oscars.’ You had Warren Beatty, Sofia Loren — he was shocked that so many people were there to support Barbara,” Foster says.

As a fellow philanthropist, Jane Fonda, who is “humbled” to be honored at this year’s Carousel Ball, thought that Davis might discontinue her philanthropic work after Marvin’s death.

“I really shouldn’t have doubted her, because I realize now what a formidable human being and fundraiser she is,” Fonda says. “It’s very hard to be a fundraiser, an activist, and a celebrity the way she has remained, and still be a parent whose children love her.”

It’s been 11 years since Marvin Davis died, and Barbara Davis still stands strong. But she admits he was a driving force. “I guess it all started with Marvin,” she says. “He always cared about illness, sickness, and people in need. He was a wonderful husband, father — and I’m really glad I met him because he was my whole life. He was the greatest thing that ever happened.”