New Era at Tabernacle
By JOSHUA SABATINI

To keep abreast with the changing times, the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association has altered the way it brings in and hosts the summer programs at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.

"Things have changed because public taste is changing," said program director Robert Cleasby. "Many of the groups that used to come wouldn't be of interest today. I have been here for many years, long before I became program director in 1991, and I have seen that people's tastes have gone upscale like the Vineyard has gone upscale."

Years ago, Scottish dancers in kilts, a German group who would bring benches to dance on, a circus and ventriloquists were among the acts that graced the Tabernacle stage. What people want to see now, Mr. Cleasby said, are performers like the Boston Pops.

The number of programs has also increased at the Tabernacle. The scheduled programs for this July outnumber the whole 1977 summer season and come close to doing the same for the season of 1990.

The old ways of bringing in talent have become outdated. "In the old days, we would invite a group to come over and perform. We would turn on the lights, they would do their thing and we would pass around a hat to take a collection. They went home, they got a little money, everybody was happy," said Mr. Cleasby.

There was a time when inviting acts to the Tabernacle was a simple matter of a phone call. Mr. Cleasby remembers how he got the Scottish dancers to the Island for one season. "I called the Scottish dancers and said, 'Hey, do you want to come on Saturday?' 'Sure,' they answered. That was the end of the story. They would pay their own expenses."

The costs of the programs are rising. For the 2001 summer season, which began on July 1, and runs through the end of August, Mr. Cleasby has signed contracts with half the groups. Passing a hat around to collect money for the performers just doesn't cut it anymore. "Three years ago, we changed our concerts from collections to admission. We try to keep the admissions low - some are only four dollars, and you can't get a hamburger on Martha's Vineyard for four dollars. Groups used to be willing to come on spec, but they can't do that anymore," said Mr. Cleasby.

The Tabernacle's upgraded facilities allow Mr. Cleasby to seek out groups that in past years could not feasibly perform on the Camp Ground. The Camp Meeting Association, in its third year of restoring the Tabernacle, has installed a new sound system, purchased a nine-foot Steinway grand piano and is in the process of installing stage lighting. The structure is ready for the "upscale groups." But what is needed most is the funding to bring them to the Tabernacle.

The Boston Pops came to the Island for the first time in 1995, an event made possible by the funding of an individual who thought the act would be perfect for that setting. Five thousand people enjoyed the performance. The Boston Pops concert returned every year until 2000. The concert benefited the Martha's Vineyard Hospital one year. Two years ago, the performance benefited the Tabernacle Restoration Fund. But last year, the Camp Meeting Association was unable to bring the Pops back to the Island because they did not have the funding. "I felt really bad we couldn't do it last year, but we just didn't have the funds for it and we spent the whole year looking for a program partner. The whole issue is where do we find the money, and that's why we have gone to our admissions," said Mr. Cleasby.

The Boston Pops will return for this season in August, a visit made possible by Isuzu USA, who signed on as a corporate partner, picking up almost a third of the program's costs. This corporate partnership marks a new type of program funding for the association.

Another new source of funding is the Tabernacle Program Fund (TPF), established two years ago. This year's Boston Pops Concert will benefit the fund. "We are working very hard to find ways to finance the programs, but we can't do it by collection," Mr. Cleasby said. "So anything we do here has to have some kind of admission or corporate partner. We now have to do admissions in order to make things happen. Any revenue that we get above our expenses goes into this brand new fund - the TPF. Those are the monies that we can use for the next year. Anything we make on the Pops, whether it's five dollars or five thousand dollars, will go into the TPF. Any money that we make over expenses for any of our concerts goes into this TPF. Every concert here is really a benefit for the Tabernacle Program Fund, and we turn that money right around and invest it in great programs."

And great programs are in store for the 2001 season. Every Sunday at 9:30 a.m., worship services are held with a guest preacher. Each Wednesday at 8 p.m., the Community Sing, led by Mr. Cleasby, takes place. Who gets to sing? "Everybody gets to sing. I just lead," said Mr. Cleasby. "I conduct the biggest chorus in the world. We have a song book that goes way back to the turn of the century. It's a great tradition here. There is a great spirit here. We get new people and people who have been singing over here for 80 years, and there are always little kids running around."

This Saturday, July 14, the American Band arrives to play a 7 p.m. show at the Tabernacle. The American Band was founded in 1837 in Providence. "The Vineyard audiences love big bands and this is 50 players and they are going to perform such stuff as songs by Cole Porter and all the great national emblem marches. Eighty per cent are professional musicians who do this for the fun of it, and they will leave here at a loss financially even though we have a contract with them. They so love playing here that they're willing to do that. This is a $4 admission, and it could easily be much more," said Mr. Cleasby.

The Elite Syncopation jazz quintet, on July 21, will play for a $4 admission as well. The members are symphony musicians who perform early American jazz on the piano, sax, clarinet, violin and bass.

There are two hymn sings during the season, one in July and one in August. The July 22 hymn sing will have a Christmas theme. "Whoever sings Christmas hymns in the summer?" asked Mr. Cleasby. "We do. Because people ask, so we do it."

The Tabernacle turns into a dance hall on July 27 for what has become a traditional event, the Vineyard Swing Orchestra.

Author David McCullough will lecture on July 26 in an event which benefits the restoration fund for Trinity Church. The Vineyard Sound, a 10-member, all-male a cappella group, returns to the Tabernacle as the last musical act of the month.

The schedule for August will not be released until the first of the month, but Mr. Cleasby promised that it will be as full as July. The nine-week season concludes on August 29 with a final Community Sing.

The future seasons at the Tabernacle will be more colorful still. "The Tabernacle Program Fund was created because the Camp Meeting Association recognized the need for dedicated funding for events here. They are preparing the Tabernacle for the very kinds of things we want to do," said Mr. Cleasby. One new program he would like to bring in is a Broadway show every summer. With the improvements to the facility, costs have come down to bring in such events.

The first theatrical program comes to the Tabernacle in August. Mr. Cleasby explained the performance: "I have a very interesting group that are only two people. It's the first theatre thing we are trying. These actors/singers are a female duo. They do period theatre and music from an era, and they are going to do Victorians at the Beach. They are taking life in a resort town from the woman's point of view, and they dress up and do songs. We've never done anything like that before."

Panel discussions and guest speakers to address current issues are another new facet that may appear at the Tabernacle over the next several years.

"We will have the basic venue taken care of. So it is an exciting challenge. The challenge is to find the revenues to bring to the Island folks the kinds of things they want to see, and that has been a big change in the last 25 years. These are the reasons why we are doing this stuff and why we are charging admissions when we didn't 15 years ago," said Mr. Cleasby.

He has a wish-list of performers he would like to see at the Tabernacle. And people he meets are always suggesting ideas of their own. "The bump is always finance," said Mr. Cleasby.

He recalled the memorable performance by political satirist Mark Russell. "He was unbelievable. He brought down the house. But he was expensive. We would love to have him back, but we have to develop the income."

The fund will continue to grow, and reaching out for more corporate partners may become the standard. Mr. Cleasby already foresees a change in admission prices. "I think five years from now each event will have a different admission price depending on the costs involved. That's probably where we are going. A standard admission across the board isn't going to make it."

The Tabernacle building itself will experience final restoration phases over the next several years. The Camp Meeting Association is in its third summer of raising funds for the restoration. The goal is $2 million, and the present total is $1,635,000. "I would love to hear the announcement on Illumination night, August 15, that we have met or exceeded our goal," said Mr. Cleasby.