When you buy a house on Martha’s Vineyard, you’re on tap for charity auctions. My beloved ex-husband, TV comedy writer Marty Nadler, and I bought a cottage in East Chop in 1981. He’d been asked to emcee the annual auction for the hospital. In the early afternoon of July 12, 1984, he stumbled to the mike, bleary of eye and disheveled of clothes. He groaned to the audience, “I’ve just come from the maternity ward where at 5:23 this morning, my wife gave birth to our son Charlie, 23 inches, 7 pounds and 11 ounces.” The audience erupted in cheers. When they quieted down, Marty breathed into the mike, “We’ll start the bidding at $2,500.”
The crème de la crème of Vineyard auctions is, of course, the Possible Dreams, now named for the comedy star who carried the bidding ball for many years: humorist, essayist, and D.C. wag Art Buchwald, who had a home in Vineyard Haven. The auction is a life-support system for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services with its Connect to End Violence program, Disability Services, Family Support Center, Daybreak Clubhouse, Early Childhood Programs, Island Counseling Center, the New Paths Recovery Program, and Island Wide Youth Collaborative.
Over the years the auction has changed. From its inception in 1979, and continuing for more than two decades, the event was held in the sunny courtyard of the Harborside Inn, centrally located in charm-laden, rose-and-hydrangea-draped Edgartown. Today this destination is so difficult to access through the summer traffic that one should probably plan on parking on the outskirts of town, then trekking in with two Sherpas and extra cans of oxygen.
In addition to Mr. Buchwald’s witty presence, the event was rich with a team of world-famous donors, with news icon Walter Cronkite annually auctioning off a sail around the Island that fetched $250 in its first year and, 21 years later, $20,000. Mike Wallace for years chipped in a private visit to the set of “60 Minutes.” Year after year, singer-songwriter Carly Simon offered to perform at private parties, one year amicably accepting two bids for a reception at her own house, accruing a total of $162,000.
Along the way, there were intimate luncheons at the Mohu, the home of Washington Post owner Katharine Graham, and a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with the man who “bought” it by writing a book about it, David McCullough. Other contributors have included Dan Aykroyd, painter Allen Whiting, and author, professor, and DNA explicator Skip Gates.
In those earlier days, you might pass Mike Wallace coming back from the bar, or Walter Cronkite standing to cheer his own Dream on. And mixed in were a number of oddball delights. In Art Buchwald’s first appearance, he pointed to a canvas bag which contained the effluvia from lions, elephants, and giraffes from the Bronx Zoo. The auctioneer named it “Zoo Doo,” and passed along the legend that this exotic manure was to flowers what spinach was to Popeye. Mr. Buchwald started the bidding at $50. No one raised a paddle. A disturbingly long silence sat over the assembly. Finally, my beloved ex-husband, eager to help the auctioneer get the ball rolling, raised his hand. “Okay, fifty bucks!” shouted Mr. Buchwald. “Do I hear seventy-five?” No one else bid on the Zoo Doo, and the canvas sack resided in our garage for a couple of years. Finally I sprinkled some chips of the expensive poop over a row of struggling peonies. They died overnight.
The Possible Dreams event has evolved over the years, as all things must. The venue has changed to the lush emerald lawns facing the sea at the Winnetu Oceanside Resort in Katama.
This year’s offerings included two hours of hands-on training in the studio of acclaimed ceramicist Washington Ledesma; a beach bag from Rainy Day with goodies from Net Result to put therein; an oil painting of Chilmark Pond by Gloria Burkin; a long weekend in a luxury condo in Vail, a “Find Your Zen” Pilates and yoga class combo; Fenway Park tickets to catch James Taylor and Jackson Brown, and nearly 300 other daffy, delicious, and voluptuous treats.
This past Sunday’s Possible Dreams attracted over 400 visitors, and involved 115 volunteers, 250 donors, and 50 sponsors, and even before the two colossal white tents from Big Sky were raised to the golden slant of late-afternoon rays, general contributors had ponied up a whopping $150,000. I spoke with Ken Ruzyck of Oak Bluffs, who’s worked as a spotter for 25 years. “We have the best ‘seats’ in the house because we’re always running between the auctioneer and members of the audience, socked right in the middle of competing bids. Sometimes the auctioneer isn’t aware of a higher bid and begins to bang down the gavel. That’s when a spotter can save the day by running up and signaling back to the auctioneer the off-the-charts figure!”
Ably filling the sandals of Art Buchwald, comedian Jimmy Tingle, with his hilarious emphatic style, took charge with such banter as, “OK, let’s do the raffle. IS there a raffle? Don’t make me look foolish! Would you believe I went to college?”
Over the course of the live auction, and including receipts from raffle tickets, the silent auction, entrance fees, drinks, and snacks, an amount was raised in excess of $400,000. The highest bids went to “A French Adventure” in an 18th century cottage in the Burgundy region, for $12,000. (I hope the winners know that an add-on to this trip is the company of a middle-aged reporter for this paper who’ll be able to help out with her high school French.) And “Cruise to Nantucket” on the Diday, $15,000. “Made for One Another,” a private concert at the the Ritz in Oak Bluffs with Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish, fetched $7,000. And “Our Island to the Emerald Island,” went for $6,500.
Other big-money dreams included an accepted double bid on watching the Washington Capitals play from the owner’s box.
Two of life’s greatest gifts are doing good and having fun, and when they’re conjoined, the result is out of this world.
One last beloved ex-husband story in connection with the Possible Dreams Auction of yore: Marty was asked to donate a dream of providing a comedy roast for someone’s party. A woman in Chilmark bought the dream for her 40th birthday. A week before the event, the winning bidder called Marty and asked, “What kind of roast are you planning? Is it ham or beef?”
But all went with silken smoothness last Sunday. Judging by the sheer beauty, innovation, music, laughter, personalities, and thrills of this past event, Possible Dreams 2017 has its bar significantly raised.