PEGGY CRAVENS is a former child singing star who today enjoys giving other young people a chance to succeed.
Cravens is the major force behind the Waring International Piano Competition. “In 1999, John Norman, who was still the fine arts division chair from the college, went to Virginia Waring and said, ‘It’s just a shame that this Joanna Hodges Piano Competition just went away. Would you take on the presidency?’ ” Cravens related. “Virginia replied, ‘John I would love to see it revived, but I’m not a fund-raiser. Let me call my friend Peggy Cravens and, if she’ll do it, we can do it together.’ So that’s what we did.”
Waring, wife of choral legend Fred Waring and an internationally respected pianist in her own right, hosted some start-up cocktail parties. Then Cravens and her fellow fund-rising leader Dr. Gerald Bentson, went to city councils, philanthropists and the media with a pitch that became the continuing message of the importance of the Virginia Waring International Piano Competition.
“I’d always say, if we can have international tennis tournaments, golf tournaments, film festivals, etc., there’s no earthly reason why we shouldn’t have an internatinoal piano competiton as we are an international destination recreation spot,” said Cravens. “That usually caused them to at least listen to what we had to say.”
Since its revival in 2001, the competition has continued its mission to provide up-and-coming classical pianists with performance opportunities in Vienna, London, Rome, Carnegie Hall in New York adn the Annenberg Theater and the McCallum Theatre in the Coachella Valley, and in othe venues throughout the United States.
Cravens was named by the Desert Sun in 2002 as one of 75 residents making a significant impact on the Coachella Valley. Palm Springs Life magazine named her one of the 20 most dynamic women in the desert in 2005.
Her many titles include being a Rancho Mirage Cultural Commissioner. She was co-founder of the Good Samaritans of the Desert and founding event chair of the Good Samaritan of the Year Award Gala in 1992, which raised funds for elderly care at the Carlotta Good Samaritan Health Care Center in Palm Desert.
But Cravens has received as much satisfaction and even greater recognition for helping young people in the Valley.
The Student Services Center at College of the Desert was named after Cravens and her husband, photo-journalist Don Cravens, for their $3.5 million donation to the school. She was president of the College of the Desert Foundation from 2000-2002 and remains a Board member of the COD Foundation today.
The school’s then president and superintendent, William Kroonen, called Cravens “a tireless worker dedicated to the welfare of the college and its students.”
Cravens grew up a singing prodigy in North Bergen, New Jersey. She made her first radio appearance when she was 3 years old, singing, “Silver Threads Among the Gold” on WHOM-New Jersey. At age 10, she was the national winner of the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, the 1940’s equivalent of “American Idol.”
She won an audition with the Theatre Guild two years later and was asked to join the national touring company of “Oklahoma!” Her father, however, insisted she stay in school.
Cravens worked in summer stock theater and trained with famed Metropolitan Opera baritone, John Brownlee, during high school. While still in high school she replaced Dorothy Morrow on Broadway in the 1950 Frank Loesser musical, “Where’s Charley?,” starring Ray Bolger. It led to a decade of touring on stage and in supper clubs, and appearing on television under the stage name Peggy Willard.
She sang with the Ray Charles Singers on “Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall” TV show in the early 1960’s. Her Ray Charles was not the same Ray Charles who defined soul music. He was a white Ray Charles. But the African-American Ray Charles made a guest appearance using the Caucasian Ray Charles Singers. So, for one song, Peggy Cravens was a Raylette.
She left show business in 1961 after meeting New York investment banker Irving Koerner at a backer’s audition. She not only passed the audition, she became Mrs. Irving Koerner. Her new role called for her to host corporate clients and become more socially active. Soon Peggy Koerner was hosting charity events and becoming the women’s champion at Mamaroneck Golf Club in Westchester County, New York.
Among the major New York charity events she helped present were Frank Sinatra’s record setting benefits for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center at the Metropolitan Opera and Rockefeller Center. She chaired a benefit for the Museum of the City of New York with Lillian Gish as the honorary chairwoman of a gala themed “Movies: New York.” She also was a supporter of the Metropolitan Opera and served on many Gala Committees for new productions at The Met.
She and Koerner began vacationing in Palm Springs in 1971. They joined Tamarisk County Club in 1978 and bought an apartment at the Desert Island high rise development in Rancho Mirage in 1981.
It was Irving Koerner’s onset of Alzheimer’s Disease that inspired his wife’s support of the Carlotta and Alzheimer’s charity groups. She placed him in the Carlotta in 1986. He died in 1991. She had to place her mother at the Carlotta convalescent home during that same period where she, also, passed away.
From her involvement in Carlotta fund-raising, she was introduced to numerous other non-profit organizations in the Coachella Valley.
Peggy Koerner met Donald Cravens, owrld-renowned photo-journalist, at the White House in Washington, D.C. while attending a Ford’s Theatre Foundation benefit. They married in 1992 and presently live in Rancho Mirage.
Their names are engraved in the Walk of Fame at the McCallum Theatre for their donations to that institution.
Peggy Cravens estimates that she spends four to five days a week attending meetings with local nonn-profit organizations. Her most important fund-raising efforts, she said, have been the campaigns for the College of the Desert, the Virginia Waring International Piano Competition, ACT for Multiple Sclerosis and the Alzheimer’s Association. But Peggy Cravens would like to be remembered as an aggressive fund-raiser for all of her endeavors. “If being aggressive means getting the job done, ” she clarified. “I don’t think I’ve been rude to anybody, but I get the job done.”
The Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, treasurer
The Museum of the City of New York, gala benefit chair, 1982
Musician’s Emergency Fund
Metropolitan Opera Guild
American Cancer Society
New York Zoological Society
Carlotta Retirement and Health Care Center, 1988-1998, Founding board member, founding benefit chairman, 1992 Good Samaritan of the Year gala
Palm Springs Art Museum, board member, 1989-1990
Eisenhower Medical Center Foundation – 1993-1994
College of the Desert Foundation, president 2000-2002. Foundation board member from 1996 – present
The McCallum Theatre – 1988 Steering Committee and Founding member of the Muses 100
Alzheimer’s Association of the Desert, Advisory Board Member
ACT for Multiple Sclerosis, Founding Board Member, co-event chair, 2000 and 2002, board member 1999 – present
Palm Springs Air Museum, event chair, 2005
Virginia Waring International Piano Competition, First Vice President, 2001-2007-8, President, 2008 – current; Black and White Ball Co-chair: 2004, 2005, 2008
Rancho Mirage Public Library, Campaign for Excellence chair, 1997-1998
Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center Auxiliary, Vice President, 2005, 2006
Rancho Mirage Cultural Commission, 1998, 1999-2006, 2008-present
Los Angeles Cedars-Sinai Medical Center – Board of Governors and Executive Committee
To excite, educate, and engage the community at large with the joy of classical piano by presenting, promoting, and nurturing classical music through live piano performance including international competitions, concerts, and local educational outreach programs for all ages.
Alive and Well in the Contemporary World