When the actor who played Frank Barone on the TV show “Everybody Loves Raymond” was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, he told just about no one that he had the rare blood cancer.
“If you’re working in film or TV, you can’t get insured (to participate) if you have something as serious as this,” his wife, Loraine Boyle, said.
But since Peter Boyle’s death in 2006, at the age of 71, the cancer that took his life has been anything but a secret.
Eleven years ago, his experience with the disease, and his wife’s determination to prevent others from repeating it, led to the establishment of a research fund in his name — and an annual night of comedy as its main money-raising engine. The star-studded Annual Comedy Celebration, in Los Angeles, supports the work of the International Myeloma Foundation (IMF), whose chairman, Brian G.M. Durie, M.D., treated Peter Boyle.
annual show was held Nov. 4, 2017, at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, in Los Angeles. Hosted by comedian, actor and star of “Everybody Loves Raymond” Ray Romano, the event also featured performances by Hannibal Buress, Rachel Feinstein, Nikki Glaser, Robert Klein, Marc Maron, Kumail Nanjiani, Iliza Shlesinger and Fred Willard.
It raised about $600,000, bringing the amount generated since the event’s inception to approximately $7 million, said Randi Lovett, the IMF’s senior director of development.
Along with IMF leaders, Loraine Boyle, a producer of Broadway shows including Carole King’s “Beautiful,” helped to conceive the Annual Comedy Celebration, and remains involved in running it.
She was inspired, she says, by the supportiveness of Durie, his wife, Susie Novis, and the organization they founded. Boyle remembers the IMF sending a board member and fellow patient, the late Michael Katz, to visit her husband at home and mentor him through his myeloma journey.
“I decided that this was a great organization, and I wanted to do something, because, after all, myeloma could be hereditary, and I have two daughters,” she added. “I want to do something to make sure we find a cure before too long.”
The Comedy Celebration kicks off with a pre-performance cocktail party and silent auction attended by about 400 VIPs. The show seats nearly 1,000, and is followed by a VIP reception featuring champagne, dessert and dancing, Lovett said. Tickets for the show start at $50, and tickets for the parties run $400 to $1,000, she said. Some event sponsors provide free tickets for patients and advocates, who fly in from around the country, Boyle said.
Initially, the money from the Peter Boyle Research Fund paid for various studies overseen by the IMF. Since 2012, it has helped to fund the IMF’s Black Swan Initiative, which has found and validated a method that can detect any traces of cancer that remain in a patient’s bone marrow after myeloma treatment, down to one cell in a million, Lovett says. Now, she says, the initiative’s goal is to confirm that patients found to have no remaining cancer cells can be considered cured. Currently, those who test myeloma-free must wait years before hearing that declaration; beyond living with uncertainty, this often means that they undergo maintenance treatments and the financial and physical costs that come with them, sometimes unnecessarily.
In all, 40 projects comprise the Black Swan Initiative. Among them is an effort in Iceland to understand and prevent myeloma by diagnosing and treating a condition that sometimes precedes it. People diagnosed with that condition, MGUS, aren’t sick, but have an abnormal protein in their blood that could develop into myeloma. It’s the largest-scale myeloma study ever conducted, Lovett says.
Separate from the Black Swan Initiative, the IMF has established an International Myeloma Working Group dedicated to speeding up the progress of research through collaboration. The group has issued an international set of guidelines for the treatment of myeloma.
The IMF also sponsors educational workshops and advocate training programs, and offers a free information line, at 800-452-2873, that patients and their caregivers can call to learn about treatments and side effects, or for emotional support. Opportunities to donate to the comedy celebration or other IMF programs can be found by visiting myeloma.org/get-involved
“Everything we do is to take care of patients and caregivers,” Lovett said. “We want them to know they’re not alone.”
The performers who take the stage during the Annual Comedy Celebration seem to feel the same way. “They do it because they love Peter. It’s kind of nice. I get a nice glow afterwards,” Boyle said.
Even those who never knew her husband are dedicated to the cause, she added. “The year before last, we had J.B. Smoove, who was fabulous,” she said of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” cast member. “He had never met Peter, but he was so gracious, and said, ‘Anytime you want me to come back, I will.’”
Boyle remembers musician Joe Walsh as someone who has gone the extra mile to give back through the event. For one silent auction, Walsh donated an autographed guitar and lessons on how to play it, which he planned to give via Skype. After a Detroit father bought the guitar for his son, Walsh ended up giving the lesson in person — backstage, after he appeared in an area concert.
“It’s not fair to single anybody out, but our old faithfuls are Fred Willard, who everybody loves and who always does something silly and funny, and Ray, who’s been terrific,” said Boyle, who also mentioned Jeff Garlin, the Blues Brothers, Martin Short and Peter Gallagher. Doris Roberts, who played Peter Boyle’s on-screen wife in “Raymond,” participated regularly until her death in April 2016.
Last year, at the 10th
Annual Comedy Celebration, Boyle went from behind the scenes to the Wilshire stage, to be honored for her work in creating the event and helping to keep it going. Her favorite moment was when one of her daughters spoke about her. “It was really lovely,” she said.
With that anniversary behind her, Boyle envisions many years of the comedy event still ahead, and is already helping to plan the 2018 show. Although the annual performance has generated funding for many advances in myeloma investigation and treatment, she said, the need for research is only becoming more crucial.
“When Peter was diagnosed, we were told his disease was incurable, but treatable,” she said. “Now, from all the new therapies, people are living longer. On the other hand, younger people are getting it, which is scary. They even found it in dolphins in the San Francisco Bay, from PCBs in the water. It’s just something that we have to find a cure for, because it’s going to become more common.”