Ken Stabins & Tim Phillips

Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer

Tim Phillips and Ken Stabins. All photos by Davidd Batalon
Though it may be December, a chilly month for many, my thoughts turn toward memories of warmer weather—say, like 112 degrees in the shade? That temperature is enough to ward off many a traveler…but not this desert rat. Just a few months ago the thermometer was bubbling over in Palm Springs and for yours truly it was an opportunity to tour the much buzzed about resort, La Dolce Vita. The ever so down-to-earth owners, Ken Stabins and Tim Phillips, permitted this female gender onto the all-gay, clothes-optional premises for a chat.

Ken is from Rochester, New York, and Tim is from my town of choice, Los Angeles. They started this resort about seven years ago and have turned it into an enchanted getaway.

There are two pools, a steam room, weightlifting/exercise area, two Jacuzzis, and all this overlooks the mind-blowing landscape of the San Jacinto Mountains. The resort has its own Spa, too. Yes! You can experience all kinds of services, including getting waxed—in all areas! Since Ken is a biochemist and Tim is a licensed esthetician, they’ve even created their own body and facial product line called Dolce.

The hosts of this resort provide those little essentials that mean a lot, like bottles of sunscreen laying in baskets around the pool, eucalyptus spray in the cozy steam room, and, above all, safe sex kits in every room. To make it more convenient, the room key is a comfortable bracelet that easily slips on your wrist.

Both guys have contributed greatly through the years to many AIDS organizations, including AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), Desert AIDS Project, Palm Springs (DAP), Project Angel Food, Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation, San Francisco (REAF), and Lifelong AIDS Alliance in Seattle. In 1993, Tim rode in the California AIDS Ride.
The three of us gather poolside, shaded by the patio roof by the rooms, with misters blasting.

Ahh, those refreshing spews of water—coolness.

Ruby Comer: Why did you call this place La Dolce Vita?
Ken Stabins:
La Dolce Vita means “the sweet life” in Italian. That is exactly what we want our guests to feel when they sit around our swimming pools, getting a massage, falling asleep on a lounge chair, or just chatting with other guests. Also, I spent many years traveling in Europe and I wanted to bring an Italian theme to the Resort. We also played a bit on the Fellini film of the same name, which was very popular in gay culture and well recognized.

Remember Anita Ekberg prancing around in the Trevi Fountain? What comes to mind when I say HIV?
Ken: A catastrophic epidemic affecting the gay community.
Tim Phillips: Loss of friends and talented individuals who have contributed enormously to the quality of life of all people.
Ken: I also think of unity; bringing the community together for a common cause to beat these evil demises.

Good observation, guys. How did you first hear about the epidemic?
In the late seventies I heard that lots of guys were getting sick with heavy-duty flu-like symptoms, also various rashes were appearing on their body. It wasn’t referred to back then as HIV or AIDS. I later gained a great deal more knowledge when a friend of mine gave me a pamphlet called “How To Tell Your Loved Ones That You Have AIDS.” It was pretty powerful stuff. I didn’t know many guys who knew much about it either.
Tim: AZT was the first line of defense but many guys were getting sicker from the medicine than the virus.

Oh, I remember well those treacherous days. [I get sidetracked briefly as a young hunk cleans the pool.] Hey, how has this epidemic affected you?
The friend of mine that gave me the pamphlet back in the eighties is still alive and doing well. He’s a cantankerous individual and doesn’t let anyone or anything stop him from living life. I did lose a good friend in the late eighties, before the general distribution of the protease inhibitors. He died at home in bed. Just before he went into a coma, he told me that he ordered a wonderful deli plate for his memorial service and that we should invite everyone to his house after he passed to celebrate his life.

Oh, how fun! I like this guy.
Yes, he was a very courageous man. He was also very frugal and always looking for a deal. After he went into a coma, his partner, his brother, and me were sitting around his bed. His brother said, “I’m hungry, let’s get some lunch.” Suddenly, out of the mouth of this man in a coma comes, “I got a coupon from McDonald’s….” Those were the last words he ever spoke.

Oh my stars! Or to borrow the title of a Shirley MacLaine film, What a Way to Go! [We all chuckle.]
In 1989 I lost my first partner to AIDS. Just trying to get to see my partner and spend time with him when he was in the hospital was a challenge. I was not his immediate family or his wife or husband, as the straight community would label it, but I was his partner, his spouse, and had all the legal documents one could have at that time. Still, it did not help. I had to use my charm with the nurses on the floor to catch a wink of him. Then there was a change in his doctor and soon the doctor started to bark orders around the hospital and I was able to spend more time with my partner. When someone showed compassion like this, I saw hope.

How infuriating, purely insensitive, and just plain ridiculous, Tim. I hope this whole traditional family notion in America will soon collapse. Tim, you are absolutely correct about love being all that really matters. Money we don’t take with us; love we do. You provide safe sex kits in the rooms here at the resort….
Ken: We are very adamant about this. We are a community that needs to take care of each other. If we don’t, no one else will. We get them from Desert AIDS Project.
Tim: La Dolce Vita Resort serves as more than just a hotel and a place to get facials. It is a “community,” a gathering place, where thousands of guys have come to visit and share their experiences with people who care and can relate. Many from the straight community have stood tall with their LGBT friends and relatives because they understand we are really no different from them.

I like your mission of La Dolce Vita. Can we head into some air conditioning? Whew, I’m gettin’ heated up here, quickly. [The three of us schlep a short distance to the quaint, intimate chic-sporty Spa lobby and settle in the cool chairs.] What concerns you most about the epidemic right now?
Ken: We both fear that HIV/AIDS is increasingly being thought of as a disease of the past. The virus is still very much with us! It has killed many and will kill many more. Although there are medications available that have controlled the virus and it has had an impact on HIV, these chemicals negatively affect other organs as well. Many have been able to deal with the psychological effects of being a host to a virus for their entire life.

Truly! Say, how did you two meet?
We met at a bar on Fire Island. Tim was there with another guy. After about twenty minutes of chatting with Tim, I said, “Sorry to take up so much of your time when you’re here on a date.” Tim replied, “Oh we’re just friends.” I paused, looked at him, and said, “Ya want to dance?” The rest is history.

What a fine how-do-you-do! Do you guys get tested?
We were tested at the beginning of our relationship, which was ten years ago, and we have a trustful, loving, and monogamous relationship.

Sweet. Any future plans for La Dolce Vita?
Ken: We are constantly making changes to the Resort. We have a very large number of returning guests and they like to see upgrades. Since Tim has a technology background, we are constantly upgrading the way we communicate to our guests.
Tim: We will also be targeting more gay folks from Europe and Asia as we position ourselves as a global gay vacation destination. The Spa will be growing, too, as we add more space and new treatments. [Just as we end, there’s a knock on the spa door. The front office manager announces that more safe sex kits have been delivered.]

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]