We can’t believe it’s been 21 years,” said Larry Ruvo, senior managing director of Southern Wine & Spirts, referring to the annual Power of Love gala that his nonprofit, Keep Memory Alive, is hosting on April 27 at the MGM Grand. Jon Bon Jovi and Gwen Stefani will rock the house to help raise funds for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and honor tennis legend Andre Agassi; business mogul Ronald Perelman; and world-renowned illusionist Siegfried Fischbacher of the legendary duo Siegfried & Roy.
For more than two decades, Ruvo and his wife, Camille, have worked tirelessly to raise more than $250 million to build the structure and fund medical services that take place downtown at that whimsical, avant-garde, twisted steel and glass structure known as the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Ruvo had no idea when he got together with friends for dinner at Spago on Feb. 18, 1995, the one-year anniversary of his father’s death, that the evening would lead to something so life-changing for him, his family and the Las Vegas community. “We were eating, drinking, telling funny, heart-warming Lou Ruvo stories when John Paul DeJoria (co-founder of Paul Mitchell and Patrón tequila) stopped by the table,” recalled Ruvo.
“I said we were celebrating my dad’s life, and I explained that he’d been misdiagnosed by several doctors in Las Vegas for a year before I took him to the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, where we found out he had Alzheimer’s. JP said, ‘Here’s $5,000 for Alzheimer’s research.’ The rest of my friends chipped in, and we ended up with $35,000.”
That night, an idea took root that resulted in the Ruvos starting Keep Memory Alive and hosting an annual fundraiser, the Power of Love.
Each year, the gala got more extravagant with star-studded entertainment, luxury auction items, and exquisite wines and delectable cuisine prepared by chefs Michael Mina and Wolfgang Puck, who lost his mother to Alzheimer’s in 2004.
By the early 2000s, KMA had raised $35 million, which Ruvo planned to donate to UCSD with the request that his father’s name be put on a medical building dedicated to Alzheimer’s research.
But Dr. Leon Thal, a world-renowned Alzheimer’s expert and chair of Neurosciences at UCSD, told Ruvo he would be doing the people of Las Vegas a disservice if he didn’t build something here, not only for Alzheimer’s but for other brain-related diseases, like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.
“Dr. Thal was right,” said Ruvo. “Early detection and intervention are so important. Later on, we found out there wasn’t one board-certified doctor in Las Vegas to treat the more than 4,000 people with MS who live here.”
Following Thal’s advice turned out to be more daunting than the Ruvos imagined. But anyone who knows this couple knows they are a force to be reckoned with, so it’s not surprising they were able to persuade the prestigious, highly respected Cleveland Clinic to partner with them.
Ruvo also convinced famed architect Frank Gehry to design the unique building which he agreed to, on the condition that Huntington’s disease be added to the program because several of his friends had died from the disease.
Thanks to the Ruvos’ dedication, Las Vegas is now home to the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, perhaps the best medical facility for brain-related diseases in the world.
Ruvo, an only child whose best friend was his dad, made his father proud.
“My dad would gladly have sacrificed his life to do what we’re doing to improve the lives of thousands of people. His name is becoming synonymous with brain health, just the way Lou Gehrig’s name is with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis),” said Ruvo.
In addition to its Vegas location, the CCLRCBH has locations in Cleveland and Weston, Florida, with plans to build more. The Las Vegas center annually sees more than 27,000 people from around the world.
“Las Vegas is known for gambling. Now we’re also becoming a medical tourism destination,” said Ruvo. “We have the best doctors headed by Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, who conduct more clinical trials on brain-related diseases than anyone else.
“At the gala, we’re going to announce that Dr. Zoltan Mari, an MS expert, is coming here from Johns Hopkins University, another well-respected medical facility.”
Camille Ruvo said the important work being done at the CCLRCBH would not be possible without the Power of Love gala, the financial lifeblood that keeps its doors open.
“That’s why we work so hard to create memories the donors will never forget,” she said, aware that Alzheimer’s robbed her father-in-law of his memory.
The Ruvos have succeeded in creating incredible memories, like the 2012 gala, where guests celebrated the 70th birthday of honoree Muhammad Ali, who dealt with Parkinson’s like a champ from the time he was diagnosed in 1984 until he died in 2016.
Or the 2013 gala, where Quincy Jones and Michael Caine, born minutes apart on opposite sides of the world, celebrated their 80th birthdays.
Or the 2014 gala that honored Emilio and Gloria Estefan, who saw her father, José, suffer from a debilitating neurological disease possibly stemming from exposure to Agent Orange when serving in the Vietnam War.
In 2015, Andrea and Veronica Bocelli were honored, and this past year’s guests celebrated Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday with the legendary singer.
This year, Andre Agassi will receive KMA’s Community Leadership Award.
“Andre and Steffi have helped Camille and me from the very beginning, by auctioning off packages to play tennis with these two champions,” said Ruvo. “And the Andre Agassi College Preparatory College they built for kids at risk is unbelievable. The second honoree is business mogul and philanthropist Ronald O. Perelman, who sits on the board of trustees of the Cleveland Clinic.”
This year’s gala also spotlights the caregivers; those unsung heroes who too often go unnoticed and even die before the patient, due to stress and sleep deprivation.
“One day I was sitting in my car on a conference call in the parking lot at the Lou Ruvo Center, when several cars pulled in,” Camille said. “One guy got out, opened the trunk, took out a heavy wheelchair, helped his loved one into the chair, closed the trunk and pushed the person into the building.
“Another patient, who was still mobile, walked into the building holding his caregiver’s hand. Another caregiver got out of the car and walked 20 steps ahead of the patient. I could see the frustration this caregiver felt that this was now his life, yet he loved the patient or wouldn’t have been there.
“Seeing these scenarios, I realized what it takes to get the patients here, and I knew we had to, at the very least, offer the caregivers a support group where they can share what they’re feeling, whether it’s anger, sadness, frustration, depression, even guilt.
“They need to know it’s normal to feel guilty when they’re having a good day and their loved one isn’t, or if they complain even though others have it worse,” she said. “We’d like a caregiver to be able to talk with a counselor one-on-one, but it takes money, which is why we put `Pennies for Your Thoughts´ donation kiosks around town, so people can toss in their loose change.”
Ruvo is quick to acknowledge his wife.
“Camille is on the phone every day raising money, getting auction items, speaking to donors, overseeing the caregiving program. We do something every day on behalf of the center because it takes a lot of fuel to keep that fire going, and the fuel is donations.”
“We’re so grateful to our family and friends who support us every year. They are the reason the center is able to celebrate such remarkable accomplishments,” said Camille.
“Not everyone who attends the Power of Love gala has a personal experience with the neurological diseases we are involved with, but I guarantee you 99 percent have, in some way, taken care of a loved one.”
A huge fan of the Ruvos, who was a friend of Lou Ruvo and has a personal connection with three of the KMA honorees, is Bernie Yuman, who was Muhammad Ali’s friend and manager.
“Ali was like my brother for 52 years,” said Yuman. “I went with him to 180 countries and was there for all his fights until he retired. He was a champ in and out of the ring. He dealt with his disease with such dignity, and his wife, Lonnie, was a selfless, devoted caregiver.”
Yuman, the producer of the Broadway show, On Your Feet, about the lives Emilio Estefan and seven-time Grammy Award-winner Gloria Estefan, is proud the couple was honored by KMA.
“Gloria cared for her father for many years,” he said.
Yuman also was Siegfried and Roy’s manager until Oct. 3, 2003, when Roy suffered a stroke while performing onstage. His beloved tiger Mantecore picked him up by the neck, as if he was a cub, to take him to safety. Roy told “Entertainment Tonight’s” Nancy O’Dell that Mantecore saved his live because the puncture wound relieved the pressure in his head, likely preventing him from becoming brain dead.
“Siegfried is receiving Keep Memory Alive’s Caregiver Award. But, for me, Siegfried and Roy are one unit. Together they exemplify the human spirit at its highest level overcoming adversity,” said Yuman.
In anticipation of his upcoming award, Siegfried said, “I am humbled to receive this award. Roy and I salute everyone who cares for a family member or friend facing a medical crisis. I know firsthand the emotional support a caregiver gives a patient is a powerful part of the healing process. The wonderful results achieved by our medical professionals and leading-edge medical technologies are enhanced by the caregiver’s dedication.”
Yuman spoke eloquently about his longtime friends.
“Camille and Larry are not just tightly woven into the fabric of philanthropy and selfless giving; they are the very fabric itself. In my experience, people rarely do what they say. Larry and Camille are two people who follow through. They have helped change the lives of human beings around the world. Las Vegas is so fortunate to have them.”