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By FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

When Secret Service agents began making security arrangements for Hillary Rodham Clinton to attend Marvin and Barbara Davis’ star-studded charity gala in 1996, they wanted to install a metal detector to ensure the first lady’s safety.

No dice, said George Schlatter, producer of the event, to be held this Friday at the Beverly Hilton.

“I asked, ‘Why do that?’ ” Schlatter recalled. “Just the jewelry alone will set the thing off. Besides, I told them, everybody in the room knows everybody. It’s the largest family gathering in town.”

Indeed, the Davis’ biannual Carousel for Hope Ball, whose proceeds benefit the Barbara Davis Center at the Children’s Diabetes Foundation in Denver, is no ordinary charity dinner.

Although the event is said to be the largest single-night fund-raiser in the country, raising $6 million in 1996, it is perhaps more notable as an opportunity for celebrities to step out and shine. Just as with the Oscars, this is a night when the designer gowns and dinner jackets come out of the closet, when the jewels are removed from the safe.

Candy Spelling, wife of TV producer Aaron, once dazzled the crowd at a Carousel Ball with a 40-karat diamond ring, a 20-karat diamond pendant, and matching earrings once worn by Merle Oberon.

“This is definitely not the night for a little black dress,” the Davis’ daughter Nancy once said in an interview. “This is when you crack the vault, break out the jewels and put on a real gown.”

This year’s event, marking its 20th anniversary, promises to be especially elaborate not to mention lucrative.

“The success of the Carousel of Hope is attributed to the many longstanding staunch supporters over these many years,” Barbara Davis said in a prepared statement. “The motion picture and television industry, the business sector and high-level members of the social circle all respond immediately when our Carousel of Hope starts to spin.”

Respond indeed.

Friday’s guest list includes a veritable who’s who of established Hollywood talent: Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith, Angela Bassett, Joan Collins, Rupert Everett, Goldie Hawn, Dustin Hoffman, Anjelica Huston, Larry King, Roger Moore, Lisa Marie Presley, Sylvester Stallone and Rod Stewart.

Others expected to attend include former President Gerald Ford, Warner Bros. Chairman Robert Daly, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the former Duchess of York.

And then, of course, there’s the entertainment.

Scheduled to perform this year are singers Celine Dion and Babyface, according to Schlatter. Also planned is a duet by Dion and opera singer Andrea Bocelli, who will be patched in via satellite hookup from either New York or Rome.

“Marvin and Barbara have the unique ability to bring all the town’s elements together,” said Dominick Dunne, famed chronicler of the social elite. “It’s a terrific night and it’s for a good cause.”

Tickets for the gala range from $1,000 to $5,000 apiece, depending on where you want to sit. So far, $3 million has been raised from ticket sales alone. An additional $1 million is expected to come from auction items.

The last ball in 1996 raised $6 million, with about $2 million of that coming from the Davises themselves, determined to fight children’s diabetes after their daughter, Dana, was diagnosed with the disease at the age of 7. To date the ball, which began in Denver in 1978 and moved to Los Angeles in 1990, has raised nearly $40 million.

“The Davises really made people look at charity events in a different way in Los Angeles,” said Marylouise Oates, former society columnist for the Los Angeles Times. “In the early ’80s, these events had a lot of applause and recognition, but no cash. The Davises were part of an effort to have a serious bottom line for charity.”

That is not so surprising, with the event being overseen by Marvin Davis, a billionaire businessman renowned for his shrewd tire-kicking before making or breaking a deal.

Davis, who first made his money in the oil business in Denver, has made huge profits from the sale of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Pebble Beach Co. The Carousel Ball could be a case study in how to run a business.

Sponsors pick up most of the expenses for the ball, according to event officials. Merv Griffin, owner of the Beverly Hilton, underwrites the cost of the dinner; Seagram Co. Ltd. donates the liquor; Evian puts up the water; Treefrogs, the flowers; Sotheby’s the auction catalog; Revlon Inc. and Guess? Inc. handle the gift bags; and Near North Insurance donates its indemnification services.

Among the corporate sponsors donating merchandise for the auction and buying tables are Walt Disney Co., Sony Pictures Entertainment, Viacom Inc., the Bank of Boston, Bear, Stearns & Co. Inc., Van Cleef & Arpels, Saks Fifth Avenue and Giorgio Armani.

“This is the ideal way to do a special event,” said Lauren Goldstein, executive director of Cause Effective, a New York-based consulting firm that advises non-profit organizations about raising money. “When you have all these costs taken care of, you get the most bang for your buck.”

Producing a Carousel Ball is no small effort, which is why the event is held every two years, not annually. A month after the gala, Chrissy Lerner, the director of development for the Children’s Diabetes Foundation, already begins preparing for the next ball, with the help of Barbara Davis.

“The toughest part is trying to accommodate everyone,” she said. “There is not enough space.”

And that’s saying something, considering that the International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton, with a capacity for about 1,300 people, is among the largest hotel venues in Los Angeles.

Invitations have become among the most coveted assets in town. They go out only to those with longtime personal or business ties to the Davises, many of them drawn from Hollywood’s elite.

“All the stars and ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and newspaper coverage means that a lot of people learn about the charity and that goes a long way. You can’t put a price on that,” said Goldstein. “It becomes like producing a movie or the Emmys or the Oscars.”

“Tonight” show host Jay Leno will be master of ceremonies. Ed McMahon will handle the gavel at the auction.

“I am one of the items,” said McMahon, who first attended the ball when it was held in Denver. “My wife donated me to emcee the winning bidder’s next charity affair.”

One of the highlights are the gift bags that each attendee receives at the end of the evening. The bags in the past have been crammed with cosmetics, ties, T-shirts, scarves, perfumes and watches. The retail value: $750 each.

“The two great events that show that the town still has a lot of hustle are Neiman Marcus’ Last Call sale and the goody bags at the Carousel Ball,” quipped Oates. “The elbows are out.”

The scene surrounding the handing out of goodie bags amuses Ed McMahon.

“I get a kick out of it,” he said. “People have paid $100,000 for a table, they got their gowns on, their hair done, the guy has got his tux pressed or bought a new one, and when we are leaving, they are all standing on line to get them.”

Fun FACTS

Honorary Chairs: President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton, who will not attend the ball.

Entertainers: Babyface and Celine Dion

Silent Auction Items: Lexus GS400; Vera Wang gowns; Giorgio Armani clothes; Tiffany & Co. jewelry; sculpture by Robert Graham; Piaget watches; LeRoy Neiman serigraphs; guest rooms at the Peninsula Hotel; Silversea cruises; and airline flights on American, Continental Airlines and Executive Jet.

Admittance: Invitation only

Estimated Attendance: 1,300

Prices for Table of 10: $10,000, 15,000, $25,000 or $50,000, depending on location.

Not Attending: Mr. Blackwell. “They didn’t invite me,” he said.

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