Harold Matzner: The Brilliant Enigma

In Part 2 on one of the Coachella Valley's most influential people, nine valley residents discuss his branding brilliance, particularly in regard to the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

December 1, 2017
Story by David Lansing
harold matzner
Harold Matzner leads a slightly mysterious life.

In the November 2017 issue of Palm Springs Life, nine valley residents, from the president and CEO of the Eisenhower Medical Center to philanthropist Helene Galen, discussed how their organizations first became involved with Harold Matzner and what he brought to the table (besides his sizable checks). In Part 2, they discuss his branding brilliance, particularly in regard to the Palm Springs International Film Festival, as well as his slightly mysterious personal life.

Harold Matzner: Because of my dyslexia, I was going to have a tough time in college. They didn’t have the teaching tools back then for kids like me. But if you have the strength and the courage, you can make anything happen. It’s about finding the solution. And finding solutions is the secret to life.

Helene Galen: Harold didn’t go to college, and I dropped out of school when I was 15, so that’s something we have in common. But it’s what’s in here (she taps her forehead) and not what they teach you in school. It’s what you learn in life. Particularly in business. If you’re in business, you know how much money you have to take in to make payroll and how much you can afford to spend. Well, most bureaucrats — government people — they don’t have a clue as to what that means. Harold has used that talent with every charity he’s ever been involved with.

Mitch Gershenfeld: I’ve been doing this (working for performing arts centers) for almost 40 years. Once I allowed myself to sort of open up my mind to the things that Harold was talking about, I thought, “My gosh, why haven’t we been doing this all along?” The funny thing is, it’s not something you can learn in a textbook. In fact, if you’ve gone to business school, you’d probably fight doing things Harold’s way because it’s not standard procedure. But Harold has this vision and clarity to cut through all that and say, “Well, you need to do this, this, and this.” And so you look at what he’s telling you and maybe your instinct initially is to fight it but eventually you [realize], “Hey, this guy is right. Why couldn’t I see that before?”

Aubrey Serfling: He clearly has a pretty good sense of the way publicity works in Palm Springs. I’ll frequently give him a call and say, “I’m looking for advice in regard to something that’s come out in the papers,” and he’ll counsel me. He’s very, very good at public relations, at knowing when to be out there and when to hold back.


Betty Francis: One of the reasons I admire him so much is that he obviously has tremendous power with the media in the desert. I’ve seen him when he’s been in conflict with someone, when … he could tell a reporter a story or two about this person that would be most unfavorable to them, but he won’t do it. He thinks it would be unfair. I probably would have gone after this person. I know they’ve gone after him. But he won’t. His restraint is amazing.

Helene Galen: It’s just not worth it to him [to go after his enemies]. He always takes the high road. A couple of these people have really been pretty nasty to him but his response has been to send them roses.

John Thoresen: Publicity is one of his strong suits. He understands the whole publicity thing. I could sit here and tell story after story of what Harold has done to get our name out in a positive way. He’s just amazing that way.

Allen Monroe: Our [Living Desert] gala is in March and it takes awhile for all of the events that happen in February and March to get cycled through the media but we usually get a lot of coverage thanks to Harold. Right after I came to this job, we had our gala, my first, and as soon as I walked in, Harold called me over so I could be in the photographs with [him] and JoAnn McGrath. He knows how these things work and he knew it would be important to my success to be seen in a photo with [him] and JoAnn. So here’s the new guy — me — who doesn’t quite know who’s who yet, but Harold makes it happen.


“I started to get a call from him pretty much every day — 5:30, 6 in the morning … and he’d have two or three things he wanted to discuss.”David Baron

Elizabeth Armstrong: Shortly after I got [to the Palm Springs Art Museum], I realized we needed different leadership on the finance side. I hardly knew Harold at that point but I knew he was a great booster, and so I tried to convince him over dinner that I knew the perfect person and … that it was really important for Harold to meet him. Harold wanted a businessman to be our next CFO and kept saying, “No, we don’t need someone from the ballet.” I said, “Not the ballet, the zoo — the Los Angeles Zoo.” And that got his attention, because he loves animals, and he said, “OK, I’ll meet him.” So he met him and after about 10 minutes of questioning, Harold was on board. Then his mission became to make this guy really want to take the job. He started being the most incredible booster for Palm Springs, telling him everything that was wonderful about the city. And within a few minutes, he convinced Jeb Bonner to take the job. Harold is what you hope every board member will be, which is someone who will do whatever it takes to help you achieve your goals.

David Baron: Harold’s a “right now” kind of guy. If he’s got something on his radar screen, get out of the way. I remember when I was a [Palm Springs International] Film Festival board member [in 2000] and there was this big party for the board and our supporters. There were a lot of people there, and I didn’t happen to talk to Harold that night but I got a call from him first thing the next morning. And he says, “You’re connected.” I said, “Excuse me?” He said, “You’re connected. I watched you all night at the party. You know everybody; I don’t know anybody. I need you to help me know the players. Who’s who, what’s what.” He had been in town for quite a while at that point but had a pretty low-key presence. Now that he was single, he was starting to get involved in a lot of things, and he wanted to make sure that he knew who the right people were. And also whom to stay away from. So I said, “Yeah, I’d be happy to make some introductions.” I started to get a call from him pretty much every day after that — 5:30, 6 in the morning, he’d be on the phone and he’d have two or three things he wanted to discuss, and I think it’s been that way for the last 20 years.

Harold Matzner: Sonny [Bono] and I played a lot of tennis together when I first came out to the desert. We were very good friends. So when he started the festival, I helped him out a little.


“I said, ‘Harold, 
what are we 
going to do?’ And Harold said, 
‘We’re going 
to put on the best 
damn festival 
we’ve ever put on.’”David Baron

Helene Galen: When Sonny started the film festival [in 1990], it was just him and a few buddies. I didn’t have a clue about it and I wasn’t really interested. And I didn’t really get involved until after Harold took over. One day he said to me, “You should be on this [film festival] board with me.” So I said, “OK.” Because I knew if Harold was going to be involved, it was going to be successful.

Shellie Reade: Harold doesn’t delegate well. He likes to do everything himself. When the film festival starts to kick into high gear, I say, “See you in a few months.” Because he’s gone all the time.

Harold Matzner: My involvement with the film festival is complicated. I have a nostalgic, emotional feeling for Sonny, but the film festival ran out of money — it lost $1 million in 1999 — and I wanted to keep it alive. I wasn’t willing to let it die out. So I got involved. I put $12 million in it because I thought it was important to the City of Palm Springs and to the Coachella Valley in general.

Robert Dickey: Harold loves the Coachella Valley, but he’s first and foremost a Palm Springs guy. That’s one of the reasons he loves the film festival so much. And he thought with the film festival he could do something good for his city. So he just went all in. And it’s not just about writing checks. He rolled up his sleeves and dove in. He was getting on the phone, making things happen. We were in dire straits, and he was the first one in the door every morning and the last one to leave.

David Baron: When Harold came on the board, we were in a financial crisis. We had problems with finances, and we had problems getting the stars to the gala. Sometimes they’d show and sometimes they wouldn’t.

Helene Galen: He decided to put his own money into [the film festival] to save it. He realized that it could be prestigious for Palm Springs. That’s his city down there, and he could see that it needed some help with its reputation. It needed some panache. And if Harold sees that something is failing and thinks he can fix it, that’s what he does.

Robert Dickey: A lot of people — including people on the board — were saying, “Hey, we’re done. Time to move on.” Not Harold. He had this grand vision that it could still be a world-class event, so he called me up and wanted to get together — me, Harold, David Baron, my marketing director — for dinner at Spencer’s. We sat there for almost four hours discussing what needed to be done. Harold wanted [The Desert Sun] to put out a 16-page section every day for the 17 days of the festival. I think David Baron and my marketing director just sat there with their mouths hanging open. So we went back and forth and finally I said we’d do something daily in the paper, but not the 16-page insert he wanted. I said, “Harold, I just can’t afford to do this.” So then Harold said he’d agree to cover the entire cost of the advertising. Just like that.

Shellie Reade: Bob Dickey and I have talked about how being in a meeting with Harold can be like sitting in front of a Gatling gun because of all the information he throws at you.

John Thoresen: I don’t think it’s just about the money with Harold. It’s about making something successful that isn’t doing well. He likes being associated with success so anything he decides to get involved with, he’s going to make damn sure that entity is successful.

Aubrey Serfling: Somebody told me that at the first film festival Harold was involved with the gala was over in the Annenberg Theater, at the Palm Springs Art Museum, and [they wanted] to make sure they could say it was sold out. He bought all of the tickets and then gave them out.

David Baron: It’s true. The first year he got involved with the gala, he bought all the tickets himself. Then he looked at our finances and basically said, “What the hell are you guys doing? What’s the financial model?” He was the one who had the vision and said, “Look, we need to make this gala an A-list event, both locally and in Hollywood. We’ve got to get it to the point where the stars are begging to come here, where the studios are calling us to come, where they’re throwing movies at us instead of us trying to chase down any scraps they’ll give us.” That was his mission. And now, it’s just unreal compared to where we were when Harold first joined the board and we had to beg the stars to come.

Harold Matzner: The film festival gala raised $2.5 million last year. I think we generate as much publicity as the Golden Globes. It’s huge. Not one person we invited last year to our gala — which was on Jan. 2, a very tough day to get commitment — not one celebrity turned us down. But let me tell you, it wasn’t always that way.

David Baron: In 2001, all of the stars bailed on us — after they’d already accepted our invitation. It was a nightmare. The only one who showed up was Sean Connery. He saved the day. Harold talked to him and said, “Look, we’re going to need you to be everywhere.” And Mr. Connery said, “All right. I’ll do it. But in exchange, you have to get me on some good golf courses when I’m done.” And Harold said, “Done! Where do you want to play? We’ll get you on wherever you want.” And Sean Connery made every appearance that we asked him to make and really salvaged the film festival that year.

Harold Matzner: Without a doubt, the two most important events for the city are the film festival — which is just spectacularly successful now — and Mod Week.

David Baron: The reality is, if you get an award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, you are getting an Academy Award nomination. I think it’s about a 95 to 97 percent chance. And the stars know it. Which is why last year Cate Blanchett stayed up at Harold’s guesthouse, and this year I think he’s invited Gal Gadot, the Wonder Woman actress to stay there. Whatever he has to do to get her here, he’ll do it. He’s got a nice relationship with a lot of these movie stars. They know Harold now. And he goes out of his way to make sure they’re comfortable [and] that they have a great experience in Palm Springs.

Helene Galen: Harold loves the film festival. He loves all the people that come, all the volunteers. He’s very involved in everything. He’s on the phone all the time. I mean, here’s a guy who, when he started, didn’t have any experience with this and all of a sudden he’s calling up to get stars. He’s calling up … Sony, Paramount, 21st Century. All the top guys, the top brass. And they come. He gets involved in all of these things trying to make this the best film festival in the country. The film festival just about went bellyup and now our gala draws over 2,200 people and makes a lot of money.

Shellie Reade: He puts so much effort into the film festival, and when it’s over I think he’s thrilled, but there’s also a little bit of a letdown. It’s like postpartum depression. But then in a couple of weeks he’s back at it.

David Baron: Craig Prater, whom Sonny Bono had made executive director when he started the film festival, wanted to take things over in 2000 and privatize it so he could own it. He gave the board an ultimatum: “I’m doing this or I’m out of here.” And Harold said goodbye to Mr. Prater. He said, “No one extorts me or the festival.” And Prater left six weeks before the start of the 2001 festival. He didn’t think we could pull it off without him. I said, “Harold, what are we going to do?” And Harold said, “We’re going to put on the best damn festival we’ve ever put on.” And I think he personally worked 16 hours a day for the next six weeks. And he learned — quickly. It was his never-say-die attitude that saved us.

Harold Matzner: My mantra is, “Never give up, always push forward.” I think that’s one of my major strengths — I just refuse to quit. I remember when I first started my business in New Jersey, I’d sleep in the men’s room at the printing plant. I’d get a couple of hours of sleep and then go back to work. And I did that for the first two or three years.
John Thoresen: I’ve never sat down and chatted with Harold about what he does back home on the East Coast. I’ve heard he’s got a lot going on, but we don’t talk about it.

Betty Francis: Harold is extremely private. He never talks about his past and he seldom talks about his family. I don’t think most people know anything about his family.

Helene Galen: Even as well as I know Harold, I think there’s a lot about him that I don’t know. I think he’s mysterious. There’s a part of Harold that nobody knows. I mean, after all these years knowing Harold, I just recently met his son.

Aubrey Serfling: I wouldn’t say he’s secretive, but in terms of his past, he isn’t a person by nature who just puts that all out there. I know a lot more about Harold in the desert than the Harold who grew up in New Jersey. I get the feeling he doesn’t like to dwell on the past.

David Baron: Harold doesn’t talk much about his family or his life on the East Coast. I’ve heard about some of the wars that he’s fought. I remember one time about six years ago, his business was under assault by a particularly large media organization. They were trying to steal his business. He called me up from New York and said, “OK, we’re going to the mattresses. I won’t be around [in Palm Springs]. I need you to cover for me.” I think he’s got a pretty fascinating life back East.

Aubrey Serfling: Maybe what’s important to him is today and then tomorrow, but not yesterday. I’ve wondered sometimes: Is he introspective and self-aware and just chooses not to wear that analysis on his shirtsleeve? Or is self-examination just not that important to him? I’d like to know the answer to that. And I’d like to know if he knows the answer to that and he’s just not talking, or does he just not take time [to] go on the long, introspective journey that many people in his position take. Who knows? In any case, we’re all very lucky to have him in our lives.

Harold Matzner: I’ve always wanted to drive a garbage truck. So there’s a donor to the film festival who was here even before I came on board, and he’s involved in the trash business, and he’s getting a new garbage truck. And he’s going to let me drive it. I’m really looking forward to that. It’s always been on my bucket list — to drive a garbage truck.

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
Mitch Gershenfeld, President and CEO, McCallum Theatre
Aubrey Serfling, President and CEO, 
Eisenhower Medical Center
Betty Francis, longtime Coachella Valley society writer
John Thoresen, Director, Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center
Allen Monroe, CEO, The Living Desert
Elizabeth Armstrong, Executive Director, 
Palm Springs Art Museum
David Baron, Vice Chair, Palm Springs International Film Festival
Shellie Reade, life partner
Robert Dickey, publishing executive