CVIndependent

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Hank Plante is a familiar name and face to Coachella Valley residents who follow the news. He’s a political analyst for NBC Palm Springs, and recently stepped down from The Desert Sun editorial board after a five-year stint.

Despite that familiarity, most people don’t realize how much of a trailblazer Plante has been throughout his career. The Detroit native has worked in print, radio and TV, and is best known for spending 25 years at KPIX-TV in San Francisco. He retired from the station in 2010 and later moved to the Coachella Valley.

Here’s where the trailblazing part comes in: Not only was Plante one of the first openly gay TV reporters in the country; at KPIX, he helped tell the world about the horror and pain of the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. The station’s “AIDS Lifeline” project, done in the early days of the epidemic, was honored with a Peabody Award in 1996—one of journalism’s highest honors. Plante and his work were featured in the film 5B, a recent documentary about the first-in-the-world AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital in the 1980s.

It’s because of this work that Plante is being honored by the Desert AIDS Project with the Arts and Activism Award at the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards, on Saturday, Feb. 8. Plante recently spoke with the Independent about the award, his career and the state of journalism in 2020.

Congratulations on the award from the Desert AIDS Project. What was your response when you found out you were going to be honored at the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards?

I was absolutely thrilled. It’s a big deal to me. The thing about being a reporter, as you know, is that when you do a story—even if it’s a great story that you’re proud of—it’s forgotten, because the news changes the next day or the next week. My AIDS reporting—I’m proud of it, but it was a long time ago, so to have it acknowledged again 30 or 35 years later, it really means the world to me.

Tell me how you first started covering the AIDS epidemic. Did that begin when you started at KPIX?

I did a few stories before then, but at KPIX—that’s where I worked for 25 years. San Francisco was ground zero of the AIDS epidemic, with more cases per capita than any spot in the Western world. I wanted to cover it, because it was more than a story to me. I was one of the first openly gay TV reporters in the country. These were my friends who were affected. Covering AIDS was a way for me to channel my anger and my grief over the disease. I didn’t feel quite so powerless. I felt like I could do something.

I’ve found that it’s difficult to cover something in which you have a personal stake. How did you balance that difficulty—covering a topic that had such personal meaning to you—with the fact that it needed to be covered?

You’re absolutely right. It wasn’t easy. There were many times when I would be at San Francisco General doing a story, and I’d have to go out in the hallway and compose myself, because I started to tear up. Or I’d be in somebody’s apartment who was dying, and I’d have to go out and compose myself—because I’m not there to cry. I’m not there to be an advocate, and I didn’t want to lose any credibility. … I hate the word “objective,” because I don’t think there is such a thing.

Thank you! Me too.

I mean, we see things through our own eyes. So that’s always going to be there, but still, I had to be a professional. I had to be a professional. So, yeah, it was difficult. It was very difficult.

Now, 30-plus years later, being HIV-positive is not a death sentence. Yes, people still die from the disease, but in most cases, it can be managed. Tell me about your perspective after covering this for so long—and how the AIDS world, for lack of a better term, has changed over the years.

I have to tell you, I am really, really thankful that I have lived long enough to see the beginning of the end of the disease. The worst of the epidemic, as you know, went for about 15 years—from 1981, when it was first reported on in the medical journals, through 1996, when protease inhibitors came along.

Since then, it’s been mostly good news medically. Now we have so many wonderful drugs, like Truvada, also known as PrEP, which pretty much prevents people from getting HIV if they take it regularly. Truvada is made by a California company, Gilead Sciences. Merck, another pharmaceutical company, is now developing an implant under the skin that dispenses similar drugs so that people don’t even have to take the pill. You just need the implant changed occasionally. That’ll be especially helpful in Third World countries, where taking medicine on a daily regimen isn’t always possible, for a lot of reasons.

Johnson and Johnson, which financed the film 5B that I’m so proud of, this year is testing a potential AIDS vaccine in the U.S. and in Europe; they’ve already had great results testing it in Africa. So we are seeing the beginning of the end of the epidemic, at least in America. There are serious problems and challenges for communities of color and in the Third World, so we can’t let our guard down. But this has been all good news for the last several years.

You’ve done a little bit of everything, working early in your career at The Washington Post, and doing both TV and radio. What are your thoughts on the state of journalism today, given the fact there have been so many job losses?

You caught me on the right day to ask that question, because I just learned that the chain of weeklies where I started as a reporter is shutting down. … They were around the beltway in D.C., and in Maryland and Virginia. This was a great chain of weekly publishing. Bob Woodward began there. I worked there. Ron Nessen, who became a White House press secretary, worked there. They turned out a lot of very successful people—but you know, this is the age we live in. It breaks my heart, and I don’t think that the readers understand what it’s costing them.

When it comes to the public arena, reporters are the only friends you’ve got. These politicians are not always looking out for your interests. … You think about the stories not getting covered. I had a political consultant in Sacramento tell me, “We love to see fewer reporters here in the state capital.” He said, this is a quote: “It’s like driving down Interstate 5, and there’s no California Highway Patrol.” The reader and the viewer—they are the ultimate losers in this.

What is going to save journalism?

I don’t know. So far, what seems to be working best is when these private, rich people buy newspapers. We’re seeing this in Los Angeles. Jeff Bezos of course, bought The Washington Post. We need angel investors to really step in. It’s not something that the government’s going to do, nor should they. I don’t know.

I do think that the tech companies have an obligation to help in some way. They’ve got to start paying somehow for the news that they, as they call it, “aggregate.” I call it plagiarize. You know, Google and Facebook—they call themselves tech companies, which is B.S. They’re not tech companies; they’re media companies. They’re in the advertising business, and they’re not paying for the content that they’re getting rich on. So that’s got to be fixed.

Is there anything that you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about?

I just believe in supporting local journalism. I’m really happy to talk to you. I like the work that you’re doing, and it’s not easy. I love community journalism. I think that local journalism, like what the CV Independent is doing, can be more impactful than national journalism. I saw this at The Desert Sun. We did editorials on issues that changed things. If we had done the same type of editorial in a bigger paper in L.A. or San Francisco, it wouldn’t have had any impact. When you get closer to the stories that are right here, you can make a big, big difference.

The 26th Annual Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards take place at 5:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 8, at the Palm Springs Convention Center, 277 N. Avenida Caballeros, in Palm Springs. Tickets start at $500. For tickets or more information, visit www.desertaidsproject.org/steve-chase-humanitarian-awards-2020.

Published in Features

On Feb. 9, Desert AIDS Project will be celebrating in a big way at its 25th Annual Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards gala.

To celebrate the silver anniversary edition of D.A.P.’s biggest fundraiser of the year, Barry Manilow will be performing a full concert. While virtually all of the attendees know about Barry Manilow, some of them may not know much about the man for whom the event is named—a man whose generosity is, in part, responsible for the success D.A.P. has had over the years.

Steve Barrett Chase, who passed away in 1994 at the age of 52—himself a victim of the AIDS epidemic—was a designer to the stars. His clients, according to the Los Angeles Times, included Rona Barrett, Dyan Cannon, Farrah Fawcett, Gene Hackman, Johnny Mathis and Joan Kroc, the owner of McDonald’s.

“He was a bigger-than-life character,” said Steve Kaufer, a friend of Chase’s who has been on the D.A.P. board of directors since 2007; Kaufer was also on the board from 1987-1997, and currently serves as the board president. “He was a very successful interior designer. I think his love for design and making things pretty started when he was really young in his life, and he pursued that.”

Chase came to Palm Springs to work with famed designer Arthur Elrod, and stayed in the Coachella Valley after Elrod died in a traffic accident in 1974.

“Steve was very talented and became very, very successful,” Kaufer said. “I had a subscription to Architectural Digest, and I think he was featured in Architectural Digest more than any other designer that I ever saw. 

“I always thought that maybe he had compromising pictures of (Architectural Digest editor) Paige Rense,” Kaufer said with a laugh. “In all seriousness, he was always in the magazine because his designs were literally all over the world. Of course, he designed in Palm Springs and in the desert area, but he designed internationally. He designed yacht interiors, airplane interiors—so he kind of did it all.”

Kaufer said Chase was someone who didn’t enjoy just sitting around.

“One of my early recollections is going over with a couple friends to his house, and everybody wound up playing croquet out on his lawn, and it was fun,” Kaufer said. “He was traveling. He was doing things. He was an avid jogger, and he was always very active.”

Kaufer said that when Chase became involved with D.A.P., one of the first things he did—not surprisingly—was lend his design talents to the fledgling organization.

“DAP started in 1984, and we had a small office, and then we moved to a facility on Vella Road in Palm Springs—but it was an industrial building,” Kaufer said. “I don’t know what it had been used for before we moved in, but it was pretty rough around the edges, and Steve became involved. He used his talents and his firm, and he also leaned on a lot of his vendors to donate services and products that could be used in his work at the DAP to make it look pretty. 

“He felt that, just because we were a charity, and we were dealing a lot of times with people who lived below the poverty level, we didn’t have to have an office that looked horrible. He wanted people who came in to have a nice environment in which to be in, to receive their care, and to work.”

In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was difficult to raise money for HIV- and AIDS-related service organizations like D.A.P., because the virus and disease such carried a huge stigma.

“It wasn’t popular to be a corporate sponsor of an AIDS program, and many people in the area of normal philanthropy didn’t look at AIDS as an area that they wanted to get involved in,” Kaufer said. “Steve recognized that, and he used his celebrity and his contacts with major stars and big people like Joan Kroc, and President and Mrs. (Gerald) Ford, to try to expand the giving that D.A.P. received from groups that we normally wouldn’t get funding from.”

Those contacts paid huge dividends, as did Chase’s personal generosity. Not only did Chase lend significant support to D.A.P.; he also gave major support to the organizations today known as The Living Desert and Gardens, and the Palm Springs Art Museum.

In the case of D.A.P., the organization Chase championed is now in the midst of its biggest period of expansion to date—a $20 million project, slated for completion in 2020, that will more than double the organization’s patient capacity. The expansion, called vision D.A.P. Vision 2020, is necessary in part because D.A.P. is now a Federally Qualified Health Center—meaning anyone in need of primary medical care can walk in D.A.P.’s doors and become a client. When the expansion is complete, D.A.P.’s 60,490-square-foot campus will be able to serve 8,000 patients, up from 3,900 in 2017. The dental clinic will be able to help 1,700 people, compared to 814 in 2017, while the behavioral-health-patient capacity will rise from 583 to 1,200.

I asked Kaufer what Steve Chase would think if he could see where D.A.P. stands today.

“He would be very proud—very pleased,” Kaufer said. “Steve was a big personality, and he did things in a big way, and he would be very pleased to see what was going on at Desert AIDS Project and the expansion of our mission to provide health care for not only people with HIV and AIDS, but a community that really needs quality health care, and has no other source for it. He’d be very proud. 

“He’d also probably start looking at the plans and saying, ‘No, we can’t have that wall there. We need to do this, and the lobby has to be a little bit different, and we need some different furniture,’ Kaufer added with a laugh. “He would want to put his mark on it, and ensure that it looked good, so that people, when they came there for treatment, would feel special.”

To donate to the D.A.P. Vision 2020 expansion, call Christopher Ruetz, D.A.P.’s Director of Major and Planned Giving, at 760-656-8450, or email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. For more information on Vision 2020, visit dapvision2020.org.

When the Pointer Sisters began performing as an R&B group in 1969, nobody would have predicted that the group’s biggest hits would eventually be electronics-driven songs in the 1980s.

Yet that’s exactly what happened, and while the group has slowed down somewhat in recent years, the Pointer Sisters continue to perform—and will headline the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards, a fundraiser for the Desert AIDS Project, on Saturday, Feb. 11.

Today’s Pointer Sisters only feature one original member—Ruth Pointer—although the group remains a family affair: She’s joined by her daughter, Issa, and her granddaughter, Sadako. During a recent phone interview, Ruth Pointer discussed how she and her sisters adapted to the technology that changed the way music sounded during the ’80s.

“I don’t recall it being very hard,” Pointer said. “We were making not only that kind of transition, but (moving) to a different record company and to a different producer who had something else in mind. We’ve always been pretty adventurous in breaking boundaries and trying new things. It’s always been exciting for us to do interesting things.”

One of the songs the Pointer Sisters are best known for is “Neutron Dance,” which played during a chase scene in 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop. Pointer said she did not like the song when it was first presented to her.

“Allee Willis co-wrote that song, and she has always been what we’ve considered a great songwriter and a fun artist,” Pointer said. “When she brought the song to us, she had me in mind to sing the lead on it, because I have a very strong gospel balance in my voice. I really wasn’t enthusiastic about playing that song, because I’ve always related neutrons to war and destruction, like a neutron bomb. She said, ‘Look, just go in there and sing that song, girl, because I know that you’re going to rock it!’ I did; it was fun, and it’s been fun to sing ever since.”

The Pointer Sisters were on tour with Lionel Richie when “Neutron Dance” became popular—rather quickly.

“We didn’t even have it in our setlist in our show. By the end of the tour, everyone was coming to our dressing room saying, ‘Do you know what’s going on with this song?’” Pointer said. “The very last show we had on the road with Lionel, he came into our dressing room and said, ‘Listen, you guys have to put “Neutron Dance” in the show. It’s going crazy. It’s in Beverly Hills Cop, and people want to hear it.’ We put it in the show, and I will never forget hearing a scream so loud and people rushing the stage. I almost forgot the lyrics to the song! I thought, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like to have a hit, OK!’”

Will the Pointer Sisters ever record a new album? After all, the group has not released a studio album since 1993.

“I really don’t know.” Pointer said. “I’ve had thoughts about it, but my thoughts about it are that it would just be an experimental thing to incorporate new sounds and new techniques, and current artists you might want to collaborate with. … I think the type of music we do is for what our generation was at the time. We still travel and do shows, and the people who remember our music are baby boomers. They get it. There are some young people in our audiences, and they come backstage and tell us, ‘My mom was always playing the Pointer Sisters.’ But the whole body of music has changed so much as to what’s accepted and what makes a hit. It’s so different than it used to be.”

I asked Ruth Pointer, now 70, if she’s ever felt like calling it a day or going off in a different direction—to make a solo album, perhaps.

“I’ve had those feelings. Sometimes, I have them even now,” she said. “I just feel like as long as it works, we’ll just keep doing it. The people who hire us, they hire us for a certain reason and for a certain reputation we had. If you’re going to change it all of a sudden, that could really throw a wrench into it. Right now, we’re going to keep it as it is. I’ve had aspirations to do solo things, and I wrote a book about my life (published last year) called Still So Excited. Who knows what the future might bring?”

When I asked Ruth Pointer about her favorite career moments, she brought up the song “I’m So Excited.”

“It’s just one of those songs. We’re so fortunate that when we wrote that song—that’s exactly what we had in mind,” she said. “We went into it thinking … that everyone, when they heard that phrase, they would think about how there was a song that said, ‘I’m so excited!’ I hear that all the time. We got exactly what we wanted from that song.”

The Pointer Sisters will perform at the 23rd Annual Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards Gala. The event starts at 5:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 11, at the Palm Springs Convention Center, 277 N. Avenida Caballeros, in Palm Springs. Tickets start at $475. For tickets or more information, call 760-992-0445, or visit www.desertaidsproject.org.

Published in Previews