When Joan Rivers passed away on September 4, her status as a comedy legend was intact, as was her work ethic.
Over the course of a career which began in New York comedy clubs more than a half century ago, Rivers walked to the beat of her own drum. A strong woman, she often told ribald, deliberately offensive jokes, which were, and are, still considered inappropriate for "ladies.”
Rivers didn't care. Her profanity laced stand-up shows were usually sold out.
As busy as her hectic schedule could be, Rivers found time for at least two causes that were near and dear to her heart: Guide Dogs For the Blind and people with AIDS.
Guide Dogs For the Blind is a non-profit based in San Rafael, CA. The organization trains guide dogs and the blind people who need them, at no cost to the people. It's a critical service, which gives the blind independence. Belo Cipriani, author of SFGN's Seeing in the Dark column, is a totally blind 34-year-old gay man in San Francisco. Cipriani, now the official spokesperson for Guide Dogs For the Blind, is able to work and live on his own because of the help he gets from his beloved guide dog Oslo. He greatly appreciates the support Guide Dogs got from Rivers.
"Joan's contributions to Guide Dogs For the Blind brought many smiles to many blind people and their guide dogs," Cipriani told SFGN. "Her support for Guide Dogs For the Blind helped the organization reach many of its goals."
Rivers' support for people with AIDS was unparalleled. She is now being remembered by many for being the first celebrity to appear in person at an AIDS fundraiser three decades ago. For many years she sat on the board, and personally delivered meals, for God's Love We Deliver, a meals-on-wheels program for people with AIDS, which is based in New York, where Rivers lived.
"Elizabeth Taylor followed Joan Rivers," recalls Paul Klees of the San Francisco based AIDS Housing Alliance. "She used the stage as her bully pulpit to bring awareness, compassion and a reality check to her audiences. She won NBC's Celebrity Apprentice and donated her winnings to God's Love We Deliver. She was an early supporter and a board member until her death."
Karen Pearl, President and CEO of God's Love We Deliver, couldn't say enough in praise of Joan Rivers.
"She served on our Board for 29 years, and delivered meals for 25 years," Pearl recalled, speaking to SFGN by phone from New York. "She came to a lot of our special events, visited clients, worked in our kitchen, and went on deliveries."
Pearl addressed the claims by some that Rivers was “a bitch.”
“She was warm and personable," Pearl said. "She was giving and caring to our clients and our staff. She cared a lot about what she believed in and God's Love was one of the things she cared about."
Pearl said that every Thanksgiving, Rivers could be counted upon to deliver meals to homebound people with AIDS. "She made it a family affair," Pearl said. "Cooper, her grandson, accompanied her, and sometimes her daughter Melissa did as well."
God's Love We Deliver wasn't the only AIDS organization to benefit from Rivers' kindness.
At it's website, AMFAR, the American Foundation For AIDS Research, which was co-founded by Elizabeth Taylor, acknowledged the unparalleled support that people with AIDS got from Rivers. Rivers' involvement with AMFAR went back thirty years. AMFAR founding board member Harley Hackett recalled finding it difficult to find celebrities to headline one of its first fundraisers, until Rivers stepped in. The event raised $500,000 and inspired the formation of Broadway Cares: Equity Fights AIDS. Rivers opened the floodgates. Soon, celebrities of every stripe were standing up and raising funds for people with AIDS.
AMFAR reports that Rivers assured celebrities they had nothing to fear from AIDS. After that, AMFAR never had problems getting superstar names to lend their support.