harold matzner

Harold Matzner: An Oral History

Part 1: Prince of the Desert.

David Lansing Arts & Entertainment

harold matzner
ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOE MORSE

Numerous friends and associates of Mr. Matzner were eager to participate in this oral history, and if my editor hadn’t imposed a deadline, I would still be in the process of interviewing a long list of voices. Nevertheless, I would like to thank the following for generously giving their time to this story:

Helene Galen

Community leader and philanthropist

Betty Francis
Longtime Coachella Valley society writer

Liz Armstrong
Executive Director
Palm Springs Art Museum

David Baron

Vice Chair
Palm Springs International Film Festival

Aubrey Serfling
President and CEO
Eisenhower Medical Center

Mitch Gershenfeld
President and CEO
McCallum Theatre

Jan Hawkins
Director of Development,
The Living Desert

Allen Monroe
CEO
The Living Desert

John Thoresen
Director
Barbara Sinatra Center for Abused Children

IF

you live in Greater Palm Springs and mention of the name Harold Matzner doesn’t cause you to sit up a little straighter in your seat, then clearly you’re not paying attention.

Owner of Spencer’s Restaurant in Palm Springs and CEO of a New York/New Jersey–based branding, advertising, and marketing company, Matzner, who turned 80 in July, has contributed more than $60 million to valley charities in his more than 30 years living in the desert. He’s chairman of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, vice chairman of the Palm Springs Art Museum, and an active board member for the McCallum Theatre, the Barbara Sinatra Center for Abused Children, and the Eisenhower Medical Center. There are probably countless other charities and causes to which he contributes funds, energy, connections, or just plain goodwill.

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Harold Matzner was never an orphan, but as a kid he could certainly lay claim to living a hard-knocks life. Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1937 in a family that struggled financially, young Harold tried to help his parents out by taking whatever work he could, from delivering daily newspapers to selling dog food door-to-door. His early goal in life was to be a sports writer, and after high school he apprenticed at the old New York World Telegram before realizing his dyslexia would preclude him from becoming the next Damon Runyon. “I just didn’t want to be mediocre in my career,” he says. A natural-born salesman, he got a job in advertising, eventually coming up with the concept of free weekly advertising newspapers. The business model became CBA Industries Inc., which today distributes 8 million ShopRite Supermarket advertising circulars weekly and billions more for various advertisers throughout the year.

Matzner, married twice, has been with his partner, Shellie Reade, for 17 years. A son, Devin, lives in Seattle, and a daughter, Laura, in Coronado, California. Last year Matzner received the Horatio Alger Award in Washington, D.C. His Golden Palm star is located at the foot of his friend Sonny Bono’s statue in the heart of downtown Palm Springs.

I sat down for an interview with Matzner on a warm August day at his spacious home in the hills above downtown Palm Springs, not far from Welwood Murray Cemetery, where, Matzner cheerfully told me, he’d already bought a large plot so that when he dies his friends can hold a barbecue party at his gravesite. Our meeting was scheduled for early in the morning to suit my schedule. When I apologized to Matzner for this, he dismissed it by casually noting that he had been up since 4 a.m. I’ve since learned that this is not unusual for him. He was dressed in what has humorously been called the Matzner uniform: black dress pants, black shirt, loud tie, and white tennis shoes. He led me down a long hallway decorated with artistic photos of his dogs by artist and photographer William Wegman, including one of his Siberian husky, Spencer, for whom his restaurant is named.

Matzner wanted to show me a video he had just received from the Horatio Alger Association related to his recent induction, of which he is enormously proud. He sat on the edge of his unmade bed, flanked by his two Cavalier King Charles spaniels, both named Buster (but affectionately referred to by Matzner as “Buster” and “Little Guy”). It was obvious by their interactions that Buster and Buster adore Matzner almost as much as he adores them. We watched the short video on his 60-inch flat-screen TV and then, rather than moving back into the living room, Matzner conducted the rest of the interview sitting on the edge of his bed while I took notes from a wing chair in the corner. A 5-foot-tall stuffed toy giraffe — a recent gift from the Living Desert to commemorate Matzner’s $50,000 gift for naming rights to a baby giraffe that was born at the zoo on April 28, which he named Harold —hovered over my shoulder. Matzner was generous with his time, did not ask for questions in advance, and set no limits on our discussion.

Harold Matzner: I’ve lived out here [in Palm Springs] for 30 years, but I wasn’t always that involved in the charities. Then, in 2000, I became single again. I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands. My life changed significantly. And I decided to become much more involved in charitable organizations. I just decided I was going to do this.

Helene Galen:
One of my closest friends was Judy Gelfand. She was very friendly with Harold and had helped to arrange his wedding in the late ’80s.

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So I met Harold through the Gelfand family. I was invited to a big, wonderful dinner party for Harold after he got married. And from that point on, I became involved in Harold’s social world, like having dinner with him and a group of friends at his beautiful house. He wasn’t really involved in charities back then. His wife kept him very busy. She liked the glamorous world.

Betty Francis:
About 20 years ago when I started doing the society pages for The Desert Sun, a friend of mine kept talking about this Harold Matzner guy. She insisted I had to meet him. So I’m at some gala and there’s Harold and a long line of people waiting to greet him. I introduced myself to him, this stranger, and then started to move on, but he grabbed me, gave me a big hug, and whispered, “I just love the way you write.” Well, he won my heart right there and then.

Elizabeth Armstrong:
What I remember about Harold is that he hosted a dinner at Spencer’s when I was here to meet the [Palm Springs] Art Museum board, when I was interviewing for the job as executive director. It was a very intimate dinner that night. I think there were only about 10 people at the table; I was seated next to him and he just proceeded to be incredibly charming and personable. He was very attentive. And immediately we started joking about New Jersey. We’re from different parts of New Jersey and I feel like we got to that right away. The way he talked about how he got to the desert immediately signaled to me his real appreciation of women. It came across very clearly that he loves women.

David Baron:
He likes the ladies. Always has. There was a time when Harold and I were both single and he’d call me up and say, “Hey, we’re going to L.A.” or “We’re going to New York,” and I’d say, “OK, here we go!” (laughs) It’s impressive when you look at all the photos of Harold with the Helen Mirrens and the Laura Derns and the Brie Larsons, and there’s Harold. He likes that world. He likes successful people. He likes people who are interesting, who have taken risks, who have done something, who have talent. But he doesn’t suffer fools real well. That’s not one of his strong suits.

Aubrey Serfling: Harold is a very spontaneous guy. He’ll call [my wife] Lori and me on a Wednesday and say, “How would you like to go to Las Vegas on Friday? I’m getting tickets to Brooks & Dunn.” And we go, “Oh, gosh, I don’t know, Harold, it’s kind of sudden.” But then we always call him back and say, “OK, sure we can make it work.” Because you don’t want to miss a time like that with Harold.

Mitch Gershenfeld: There’s a wonderful gentleman here in the valley, Wayne Prim, who is also a good friend to the McCallum Theatre. Last year Wayne had his 90th birthday and Harold rounded up a bunch of us on his plane and we flew to Reno to celebrate Wayne’s birthday. One of the things Wayne is is a terrific dancer, even at 90 — and he was on the dance floor all night. And Harold was out there on the dance floor, too, celebrating with Wayne. So we partied and then flew back and Harold was ready to go the next day. He likes to do nice things for his friends and it’s done from a real genuine place in his heart.

Helene Galen: We had a party at our house in September to celebrate Jamie [Kabler, her life partner] turning 70. I knew Harold was out of state at the time but I called him and said, “Are you coming to Jamie’s birthday party?” And he said he was supposed to go to New York but he would fly here for the party and then go on to New York. He doesn’t let people down. He’s just a good person. And he does the same thing for all of the charities. He never says no. I’m on a lot of boards with him and I’ve never heard him say no.

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Harold Matzner: During the season, I don’t get a night off. Certainly not in November or January. (Turns and asks his assistant, Dawn Vargo Norton, to look at his calendar. “Do I get a night off during the season?” She shakes her head. “I didn’t think so.”)

Jan Hawkins: When I worked for College of the Desert, we started an honors luncheon and we wanted to honor Harold. He had not been directly involved in education but I knew Harold well enough to know that education is super-important to him. So we made the call to ask if we could honor him for his efforts in the valley and he demurred. Jan Harnik, who was the mayor of Palm Desert at the time and a close friend of mine, placed a phone call to him and said, “Harold, you’re known for supporting the performing arts, you’re known in the art world, and it would really help us get our message across to people that education is also important to you if you’d let us do this.” So he thought it over and said, “I’m going to do it.” And it helped us tremendously to get that event off and running. The phrase I always use is, “Where Harold leads, others follow.”

Allen Monroe: It’s a pebble in the pond sort of a thing. His pebble splashes in the pond and the ripples start going out and pretty soon you’ve got a lot more people involved in your organization and your events.

Helene Galen: I have two tables at this year’s [Palm Springs International Film Festival] gala. Cost me a bloody fortune. But because of Harold, I have to. You can’t say no to Harold.

Harold Matzner: Raising money for non profits is a lot more difficult these days than it was back when Barbara [Sinatra] could ask Frank if he could get Sammy [Davis Jr.] and Dean [Martin] to perform at some little charity gig for her. (Pauses and thinks about this.) Plus, I didn’t marry Frank Sinatra.

Mitch Gershenfeld: We have a gala [for the McCallum Theatre] every year and a few years ago I booked Tony Bennett for the evening. I was very proud of that booking. But Harold said, “I don’t think Tony Bennett is going to sell any tickets. I don’t think people are interested in seeing Tony Bennett.” And I said, “Well, you know, I’ve been booking the shows here since 2002 and I think a lot of people are going to be interested in seeing Tony Bennett.” And Harold said, “Well, good luck with that.” Of course, Tony Bennett sold out and everybody was thrilled with the show and after that, Harold said, “You know what? I’m not going to tell you who to book. You go ahead and do what you do.” And he’s continued that way ever since.

“He likes to
 do nice things 
for his friends 
and it’s done 
from a 
real genuine 
place in 
his heart.”

Helene Galen: I’ve been on his [Film Festival] board since the beginning, and the thing is, he keeps adding people. He’ll have like 20, 25 people all sitting around, and nobody says anything. Because Harold runs every part of the festival. He can do that because he knows every single aspect of the festival. Most people in his position assign things, but Harold does it all. He’s brilliant that way.

John Thoresen:
The first time I heard about Harold was through Helene Galen. When I first interviewed for this job [as director of the Barbara Sinatra Center for Abused Children], a little over six years ago, it was just Helene and Bob Marx [Barbara Sinatra’s son], and Barbara. There were a few people on the board that I knew and I asked Helene, “Are you happy with the board?” And she said, “Well, no, but we’ve just brought on a gentleman by the name of Harold Matzner and he’s going to be absolutely terrific. He’s very philanthropic but more importantly, he’s a very good businessman and he’s dedicated enough that he’ll spend whatever time is necessary to help us out.”

Elizabeth Armstrong:
He really understands nonprofits. And he’s willing to support stuff that isn’t necessarily the marquee stuff at an organization, and that’s very unusual. He’s willing to do the not-so-sexy, invisible things. He understands the mission and he’s willing to figure out how to move it forward. That’s just so rare.

Aubrey Serfling:
He’s got an amazing memory for details and facts and is able to store it all away and recall it when he needs to. So he’s a very good board member, not just in terms of his generosity but in terms of his business intelligence and wisdom. I call Harold on a fairly regular basis just to bounce ideas off him.

David Baron: He is, in terms of business, a genius. He can look at a business — and I don’t care what kind of business it is — and in very, very short order, he can pinpoint exactly what’s wrong and what needs to be done to fix it. And in his mind, he’s already got a strategy for moving things forward. He’s very hands-on with the financials [of the Film Festival]. There’s nobody that knows the financials better than Harold — and I’m the treasurer for chrissakes (laughs).

Helene Galen: I consider myself to be a very good financial person. But Harold really, really gets it. He talks about the numbers and planning and what we need, and he is just a very, very brilliant man.

“He’s willing 
to do the 
not-so-sexy, 
invisible things. 
He understands 
the mission 
and he’s willing 
to figure out 
how to move it forward.”

Mitch Gershenfeld: Harold has an incredibly agile mind when it comes to business. One of the things he’s done since I became CEO [of the McCallum Theatre] is help us understand our business in a different way. We started looking at things differently, and we started doing business differently, and as a result, we broadened the base of our support in such a significant way that we now have many, many more supporters than we did. I think what Harold has done is to allow us to see a future. Not live from year to year as I think most nonprofits tend to do.

Helene Galen: Look what he’s done for the McCallum. The McCallum, like all theaters, was starting to have financial troubles. We were barely breaking even. In fact, we were starting to lose money. And everyone was worried about the future. And then Harold comes on the board in April 2002 and he turns it around. Here’s a guy that really knows how to fix things. And people are fascinated by what he can do.

Harold Matzner: I’m a good guy with numbers. I can look at a business situation and realize what it’s going to take to turn things around. Maybe that’s what I’m best at.

John Thoresen: We have a little thing called the Champion Honor Luncheon [for the Barbara Sinatra Center for Abused Children]. Usually we get someone like a Willie Mays or a Michael Phelps. And part of the function of the luncheon is to recruit what we call “Aunts and Uncles.” These are people who pledge to give $1,000 annually [to the center]. We do a pitch at the luncheon to get people to sign up because it’s a major source of revenue for us. Well, Harold will buy a table and invite his friends and then basically sign up everyone at this table to be an Aunt or Uncle. He knows that by spending a few thousand dollars he’s going to generate a lot more than that because now these people know that Harold would like them to do this. So they do. Year after year.

Jan Hawkins: The Living Desert got three beautiful w cheetahs. I talked to Harold about them and he wanted to know if we could bring the cheetahs home to him, so we decided that we would, tongue-in-cheek, say, “Well, we can’t do that, but you can come and visit them here.” And then we Photoshopped him in the cheetah exhibit standing next to them in his tuxedo and white tennis shoes. And he just loved that. And people who see that photo truly believe that Harold was on that hill with those cheetahs because everyone knows there’s nothing Harold can’t accomplish. I love the fun give-and-take that we’re able to have with Harold. I can’t do that with all of our donors, but Harold has a great sense of humor and he likes to have fun and that makes it a lot more interesting for all of us.

Harold Matzner: After I got the naming rights to Harold the baby giraffe [in June], the Living Desert brought him out to my home so he could spend the night. And would you believe that he stood all night at the foot of my bed and never once even closed his eyes? (Interviewer is shocked at this story and must pause to ask, “…Really?”) No, of course not. They don’t let giraffes go to people’s houses, even if you buy their naming rights.

David Baron: He’s cute on the phone. He always calls me “Honey,” and we joke around a lot. Most people don’t know but he’s a very funny guy. We used to go, my sweetie and me, on various trips with Harold to Mexico or Hawaii and you’d get the presidential suite or whatever and then go out to dinner and you’d come back to your room and you’d find out that he’d short-sheeted the bed. Or you walk in and the whole bed is covered with those baby rubber ducks. They’re all over the place. He does stuff like that endlessly.

Aubrey Serfling: He’s very spontaneous in his personal life. Like if we happen to be back in New York when he’s there, he’ll call over and say, “Let’s have breakfast.” You are just never sure what is going to happen when Harold’s around or where his ideas are coming from.

Mitch Gershenfeld: There have been times when I’ve told Harold about an artist he wasn’t familiar with and he’ll say, “Well, where can we see them?” And we get on his plane and go and see the artist wherever they’re performing. We’ve done that a few times. It’s been a lot of fun.

Helene Galen: We went to New York one time with Harold and my daughters were with me and he takes us to one of these fancy restaurants and my daughters almost fell out their chairs because he ordered a $3,000 bottle of wine for them to drink. They still walk around telling that story. He’s not like any other human being. He just isn’t. He’s the most unique person I’ve ever met. I came from England and I’ve been everywhere, met everyone, and I’ve never met anyone like him.

John Thoresen: Harold reminds me of an older person who has a younger person’s soul. He just has this drive and this love for his community that he can’t turn off. You don’t see many people who are 80 who still have that drive. Usually they just want to sit around the pool and have someone bring them another margarita. But Harold loves being involved in his community.

Aubrey Serfling: Here’s a guy who obvi
ously has been very successful and could be living happily ever after — a nice, quiet existence — but instead he’s involved with everything. Like a moth to the flame, he can’t seem to stop. There’s something in him that won’t allow him to just relax. Why is he involved in as many things as he is? I don’t know the answer to that. He’s a bit mysterious that way. And we may never know the answer to that question. He might be one of those guys whose last word is going to be “Rosebud” and then we’ll all try and figure out who or what is “Rosebud.” Probably we’ll never know.