Is Mary Hart as incredibly gorgeous, friendly, genuine, and well-informed in person as she appears on television? Yes, yes, yes, and yes! This icon of entertainment journalism who has outlasted yet another male co-anchor (she’s now on her fifth in 23 years at the helm of Entertainment Tonight) is seen by millions of viewers daily in 40 countries.
Her husband, businessman and entertainment innovator Burt Sugarman, is no slouch in the superlatives department either. He’s gregarious, charming, and enthusiastic about a wide range of subjects, from athletics to politics to restaurants. He’s a movie and television producer with more than 3,000 episodes of various shows to his credit and several hit films and an entrepreneur in industries as varied as newsprint, cement, and fast food.
One of his longtime passions is this valley, and over their 16 years of marriage, Mary has come to share his fondness. Burt proudly calls himself “a true desert rat,” who has been coming to Palm Springs since he was a child and his uncle in the military was stationed here. “I learned to drive at age 11 on an Army base where Palm Springs [International] Airport is now,” he reminisces. He vividly recalls landmarks of the past, including Alan Ladd’s hardware store, the original Desmond’s, Bobby Garcia’s gambling place in Cathedral City, and Howard Manor on Indian Canyon Drive. “I really enjoy the desert,” he says, “even in the summer. I love the balmy nights.”
It took him a few years, however, to persuade Mary of its charms. “We spent three days of our honeymoon here, but after that, I wouldn’t come here for a number of years,” she says. “I thought it was too hot and too old. But Burt loves the desert. He kept saying we’ve gotta come here, and so 10 years later, we came. It was a new awakening to me. Now, the desert air is feeling great to me.”
Mary’s parents have a winter home at Monterey Country Club, which was another pull for the couple and their 12-year-old son, AJ. Six years ago, they took the plunge, buying a house at Bighorn Golf Club. They rarely spend weekends in Los Angeles, where they live during the week (Burt estimates they leave 45 weekends of the year, splitting their weekends between the desert, Montana, and other locations).
They looked at seven or eight country clubs here and chose Bighorn for its family-friendly feeling. There were quite a few other children there, an important factor for AJ, who’s tall, athletic, and crazy about baseball (he plays first base). Also, Burt likes the fact that there are no member committees at the club that could cause hard feelings between residents. “There are no committees, no politics, no anything. R.D. (“Dee”) Hubbard runs the club, and the members like each other.”
Four years ago, the family moved into its current Bighorn home, which has a dramatic semicircular floor plan with panoramic views of two fairways, a lake, the Santa Rosa Mountains, and Highway 74 in the distance snaking up to the summit. Electrically controlled draperies reveal the jaw-dropping views.
The house was under construction when they bought it, and they have made few changes other than to turn a formal dining room into a comfortable media center filled with sports memorabilia and family photos. (“We’re not formal! We never would have used that dining room!” Burt says.)
Their home in Los Angeles, decorated by the late Steve Chase, has a more traditional style. For the casual Bighorn home, the couple turned to decorator Richard Marine of Kreiss Collection. Unlike the well-known Kreiss neutral color schemes, bright colors prevail in the house. “I said, ‘Just promise me we can use color,’” Mary says. “I love blues and greens. And reds. And yellows. Any color.” Mary handpicked all the fabrics, and chose unexpected, cheerful accents such as a sunny lemon yellow tufted ottoman in the master bedroom, a huge green sofa in the family room, overstuffed chairs covered with colorful crewel embroidery, and wonderful, dark red striped drapes in the media room.
Burt and Mary met in 1985, on a plane taking them to ShoWest in Las Vegas, where Mary was to introduce Paramount’s producers and stars for the movies it was promoting that year. Burt was producer of the film Children of a Lesser God, which was to be released that year. Mary was sitting in her seat, reading her script, and Burt, always the extrovert, walked over and introduced himself. Mary was living in Los Angeles, hosting Entertainment Tonight, and Burt was constantly traveling to the East Coast, so it was another year and a half before they really got together.
“She kept following me and calling me,” Burt says, with a smile, looking over at Mary to see how this wild fabrication was going over. She laughs the laugh of a woman used to many years with someone who likes kidding around. As she often says, there’s never a dull moment with Burt.
He proposed on Valentine’s Day four years after they met.
Her pet name for Burt is “Burtle.” It originates from her saying “Burt’ll do this” or “Burt’ll take care of that.” He doesn’t have a pet name for Mary, although he says he is fond of her middle name, which is Johanna.
Mary, who has been awarded a slew of broadcasting honors, including induction into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame and the Gracie Allen Award from American Women in Radio & Television, is the rare celebrity who makes significant charity commitments that last for decades, not years. She has been involved with Childrens Hospital Los Angeles for more than 20 years. When organizers asked her to co-host the Children’s Miracle Network Telethon, she got involved with that charity as well and has co-hosted the telethon for 15 years. In 2001, she was given the first Children’s Miracle Achievement Award for her longstanding commitment to children.
When AJ had to have orthopedic surgery, her positive experience at Childrens Hospital proved pivotal for Mary. “I decided I had to step up and do more,” she says. She is now on the board of the hospital and co-chair of its $500 million capital campaign, along with HBO Chairman Chris Albrecht. They’ve raised nearly $400 million. In mid-May, Mary and Burt hosted an event at their Bighorn home for the hospital, introducing local people to the hospital’s strengths and how it draws patients from all across the globe. “If a child has a life-threatening disease or serious accident, they should immediately go to Childrens Hospital,” Burt says.
The response to the event at their home was gratifying. “This is such an incredibly charitable community,” Mary says. In the future, she wants to take prospective donors from the desert to tour the hospital.
All her outside interests and family commitments make Mary’s career accomplishments that much more impressive. She has presided over the No. 1 syndicated entertainment newsmagazine in the world for nearly 25 years. It’s not a position that can be taken for granted at any time, Mary says. The competition is fierce — and increasing. “We started the whole trend of covering celebrities,” she recounts. “We’ve worked and worked and we’re still the dominant No. 1 in our genre. But now we’re in competition with everyone. The morning shows, the evening shows — everybody is focused on celebrity journalism.”
On this particular day in Palm Desert, Mary is relaxed and talking about her early days in the business with photographer Michael Childers, who she has known since the early 1980s. They kid about a photo shoot they did together in either 1980 or ’81, when Mary wore a spectacular Bob Mackie gown and Michael gave her the “full Hollywood diva treatment” — huge hair, exotic makeup, and a look exuding glamour.
“It was my first time being photographed by a big-time Hollywood photographer,” says Mary, who had come to California from South Dakota, Iowa, and Oklahoma. “I’ll never forget that.”
“You should have seen her,” recalls Childers, who has photographed nearly every famous female face on the planet, including the reclusive Marlene Dietrich. “She looked fabulous.”
She still looks fabulous and is amazingly cheerful, even on one of her few free days when a cast of people invade her home to hang lights and set up a photo shoot that involves sitting outside in 100-plus-degree temperatures for quite a long time. You clearly get the sense that when Mary Hart says she’ll do something, she does it, not regretfully or halfheartedly, but with full commitment and good humor.
There’s a maroon velvet pillow in the home’s media room with a few sentences embroidered on it. The message is this: “There is only one success. To be able to spend your own life in your own way.”
It’s the philosophy Mary and Burt share. They had the pillow stitched, and they look at it daily when they are here to remind themselves what’s important in life.
Mary Hart and Burt Sugarman have different ideas of what constitutes the ideal day in the desert.
Burt says his perfect day would simply be staying put with Mary and son AJ at their Bighorn home. But if he went out, he’d have breakfast at the retro Keedy’s Fountain Grill in Palm Desert, ordering pancakes with no butter and no syrup. (Burt knows a thing or two about pancakes, being a longtime fan of DuPar’s superlative cakes in Los Angeles.
In fact, in his early working days, Burt was a short order cook at Norm’s coffeehouse in Los Angeles, frying eggs and bacon on the 4:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift, wearing a big white hat.)
At Keedy’s, he guessed, Mary would order a Mexican breakfast, and AJ would opt for French toast. They would follow breakfast with a family trip up Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to hike and eat lunch at the top of the Tram. They would come back to the house for a swim and then go to a restaurant at The River at Rancho Mirage for dinner. And then the three of them would go to a movie. If Burt could plan a second day here, he would play golf, but probably only nine holes. “We like golf, but we aren’t addicted to it.”
Mary’s perfect day would start at 7 a.m. with exercise. “I love to go hiking, and I might go to the Bump and Grind trail.” Or she’d go to the gym and work out on a treadmill. “I love our spa here at Bighorn. It’s like having my very own spa in my back yard. It’s the best.” She would follow exercise with a spa pedicure and manicure.
In the afternoon, she says, she might like a round of golf.
Like Burt, Mary enjoys simply staying at home at night, but notes that they have plenty of social opportunities in the desert. “We actually have more of a social life in the desert than in L.A.,” she says. “We have so many friends here.”
If they were to go out for dinner, she would pick Cuistot or Jillian’s in Palm Desert, or any of the restaurants at The River.
And where would the world-famous expert on entertainment go for entertainment in the valley? “I’m dying to see The [Fabulous] Palm Springs Follies,” she says. “I haven’t been, but I really want to.”