Barbara Keller is a noted businesswoman and philanthropist, and an Association of Fundraising Professionals Volunteer of the Year. Along with her husband, Jerry, she owns Acqua Pazza California Bistro in Rancho Mirage and LULU California Bistro in Palm Springs. In recognition for her outstanding contributions to the community, she recently received a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Fame.
Barbara, we met through our mutual friend, Amy Blaisdell, and I certainly see why she recommended you as a fascinating interviewee. In addition to your wonderful restaurants, you do so much for the Palm Springs community though your philanthropic efforts with the Palm Springs Art Museum, the Desert AIDS Project and so much more. No wonder the Association of Fundraising Professionals named you Volunteer of the Year! How did you come to be so involved in philanthropy?
I’d worked much of my life in New York and wasn’t sure how I would spend my time in the desert wisely until I met a fellow more than twenty-five years my senior at a cocktail party. Mickey Shepard told me of many ways he filled his days. I remember him mentioning teaching children to read in an elementary school, giving tours at the Palm Springs Art Museum, and assisting cancer patients at Desert Regional Medical Center. I soon began with the first two: I volunteered in a school and became a docent at the Museum. The latter was particularly fulfilling and began a virtual career in volunteerism. I will forever be grateful for my mentor, Mickey, now in his early 90s and going strong.
Which cause would you say is nearest and dearest to your heart and why?
I would need to name two.
The Desert AIDS Project saves lives. This outstanding organization has a national reputation as one of the most comprehensive HIV/AIDS services providers in the US with an on-site medical clinic, dental clinic, case management system and a full-service community center offering a computer lab and health education. They also offer confidential HIV testing. Additionally, they meet basic needs such as food, housing, mental health, education and other support services. It’s an astonishing place.
The Palm Springs Art Museum enriches lives. It’s a place where many children who lack arts education in the schools are helped to develop their observational skills, to explore their curiosity and to question. Here, one can watch art transcend all boundaries. It brings imagination to life and gives life to imagination. It’s such a joy to see the faces of visitors, young and old, deriving such pleasure from looking through the negative space of a Henry Moore sculpture.
I’m so proud to be on the board of directors of both these charities.
Barbara, you and your husband, Jerry, are originally from New York City. What prompted your move to Palm Springs?
Jerry and I were flying to Palm Springs for business meetings about three times a year. One rainy day we amused ourselves by looking at a condo and bought it. It was as simple and impulsive as that. And how fortunate that madcap moment turned out to be!
Your background is theater [Barbara taught theater arts and served as executive producer of two theater companies before becoming a labor negotiator in the entertainment industry], is theater still a part of your life in Palm Springs?
It is! I’m very supportive of the Annenberg Theatre at the Palm Springs Art Museum. I especially love the Cabaret series. I’m also a huge fan of the McCallum Theatre and was once a trustee there, active in the education department (the McCallum has a wonderful aesthetic education program). My husband, Jerry, is on the board of the CV Repertory Theatre–an educational, dramatic and musical theatre organization which presents innovative professional productions and outreach programs that enrich, enhance and impact the quality of life of the residents and visitors in the Coachella Valley. I’m delighted to see the respect for and appreciation of the CV Rep’s performances.
Describe a favorite day spent in Palm Springs.
A favorite day would include a visit to the Museum, lunch with a few really fun friends at LULU, a meeting for the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards gala because no one wants to ever leave those zany meetings, and dinner with my husband on the terrace of Acqua Pazza.
Sounds divine! And what upcoming Palm Springs area project or event are you most excited about?
I look forward to so much of the season. I must be a true social butterfly as I’m never one of those who complains that the season is too full. I love the AIDS Walk; Jerry and I always participate, and it feels like the start of the season to me. My dear friend Terri Ketover will be a contestant in Dancing With the Desert Stars in November and I can’t wait to see her shine. And I’ll surely tear up at the final Les Dames Du Soleil. The opening of the Annenberg is always fun; this season’s Sparkle will be electrifying, and the Museum’s Gala will be terrific this year. Of course the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards, February 9th, is a major event of the season for me as the inimitable, fabulous Jim Casey and I are chairing it for the 5th year in a row. In March, I chair Dinner At My Place with the very fun Steve Kaufer, D@MP is a series of unique dinners given by very generous hosts. I’m also eager for the Art of Shopping, a PSAM event that will be returning this March, as well. This year’s One Night Only, for Jewish Family Service of the Desert, produced by the multi-talented Michael Childers, is going to be a smash, and the AIDS Assistance Program’s Evening Under the Stars in early May is a wonderful event. I know I’m leaving out so many that I equally love but the answer to this question can be limitless.
Sounds like a fun Season indeed! Barbara, what is it that you love most about Palm Springs?
I don’t know how to say this other than truthfully, but my gay friends make my life…well…gay….happy gay, that is! I don’t mean to say that I don’t love my countless straight friends just as much, but there is nothing like a good giggle and these beautiful people know how to create those laughs in spades. I love the many dear friends Jerry and I have made in the desert who have come together from all over the country and beyond. Somehow it feels we’ve known and adored them forever. This is a very loving and lovely part of the world. The weather can’t be beat, and I even love the summers!
What are some of your favorite restaurants (besides your own!), retail stores and hot spots in Palm Springs?
Jerry and I eat out nightly and we definitely find ourselves in Acqua Pazza and LULU a lot, but we also frequent Spencer’s, Copley’s, Trio, Jake’s, and Shame on the Moon. We hand out a brochure at our restaurant–though it frequently runs out of print–recommending other privately owned restaurants in the desert. There are so many we like! As for retail shops, Wil Styles is a really charming, affordable shop next to the ever popular Trina Turk boutique, and I love to purchase gifts at the Palm Springs Art Museum–the best museum shop anywhere.
Barbara, thanks so much for talking with me today and for sharing some of the things near to your heart. You are indeed a shining star and we are lucky to have you!