Art Buchwald opened last night's Possible Dreams auction with the same wit that over 24 years has helped raise $4 million dollars for Martha's Vineyard Community Services: "Despite the 250 cars waiting at the blinker light," he declared, "we're going to start."

Nearly four hours later, Mr. Buchwald ended the benefit by auctioning the hat off his head for $4,000, bringing the night's total to more than $500,000, organizers said, an auction record.

Despite overcast skies, the weather held for the 25th annual event. The overflow crowd of donors, buyers and dreamers filled the Harborside Inn's waterfront garden and watched from atop the balconies. Sixty Minutes commentator Mike Wallace took the microphone to assure them: "I have just gotten a dispatch from the most trusted man in America. Walter Cronkite says you can put away your umbrellas; it's not going to rain for the next few hours.

"It was 24 years ago, at five o'clock in the afternoon, that Art Buchwald first mounted this platform," Mr. Wallace continued. "And in the 24 years since he has become the heart, soul and funny bone of this annual exercise in generosity."

With a standing ovation, the audience then welcomed Mr. Buchwald - jaunty in his red sports coat and white Panama hat - who immediately turned attention from himself to the night's cause. "When Washington talks about the economy, they like to talk about statistics," he said. "But the real numbers aren't the statistics. They are people; they are hurting; they need help. That's why we're here tonight. To help the people of this Island."

He concluded with the familiar warning: "Remember, if you wave to a friend or scratch your nose, that's a bid."

Fellow auctioneers Susan Klein and Rick Lee joined Mr. Buchwald as bidding began on the first of 50 dreams. Though tentative at first, the audience warmed up with each progressive item. Ms. Klein and Mr. Lee let no one off lightly, urging individual bidders to up the ante. But the spark that ignited the evening came only when Mr. Buchwald himself was put on the auction block with his offer to conduct a one-on-one interview about the buyer's family history.

"Anything for Artie," Ms. Klein urged, as bidding jumped quickly from $10,000 to $20,000, closing finally at $22,000. Later, Ms. Klein introduced a surprise item to honor the longtime auctioneer - an issue of McCall's from 1970, featuring a photograph of Mr. Buchwald in a caped Superman outfit. The vintage magazine sold for $4,000.

The top-selling dream was Carly Simon's private concert and promise to reveal the subject of her song You're So Vain. Though scheduled for the end of the evening, auctioneers brought Ms. Simon to the stage halfway through the evening.

"First of all, I want to say happy 25th to Art," said Ms. Simon. "And then, very importantly, I want all the employees of Martha's Vineyard Community Services to take a stand. We couldn't do without you."

Ms. Simon paused as the audience applauded, then continued: "I'm honored to be here. And I'll give away my biggest secret - not here, of course - but I do have a bag of tricks, just in case any of you have forgotten the lyrics."

"Sing it!" someone shouted, and the audience applauded in anticipation. Pulling out a toy boat, Ms. Simon recited: "You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht. Your hat strategically dipped below one eye, your scarf it was apricot." She tilted a baseball cap over Mr. Buchwald's forehead and wound an apricot scarf around his neck. Upon hitting the chorus, she broke into song.

Ms. Simon added that in honor of Community Services, she would add 30 per cent of what was bid as a donation to the employees' salaries.

Almost immediately, an offer of $30,000 hushed the crowd. To tease out higher bids, Ms. Simon reminded the group she's kept the name a secret since 1972. A few minutes later, the gavel cracked at $50,000.

Concerns that a labor dispute might mar the event proved unfounded, and bidding continued throughout in high spirits.

Other familiar donors included the actress Patricia Neal, who raised $5,500 for cocktails at her Edgartown home and dinner at Lola's, and the cartoonist Jules Feiffer, whose offer to draw an original dancer pulled in $12,000. Volunteers held oversized Arthur dolls in the air - the anteater, not the auctioneer - as bids shot back and forth for creator Marc Brown's dream, which went for $20,000.

A trio of pricey dreams followed shortly, led by historian David McCullough's offer to host a tour of the Adams House in Quincy. When the bidding hit $20,000, Mr. Buchwald said: "We're not fooling around here. I just want to say one word: Seabiscuit." Escalating bids signaled the crowd's approval, and the gavel cracked at $25,000.

The venerable newscaster Walter Cronkite next voiced his appreciation for Mr. Buchwald. "Our great, dear, wonderful friend. We've all heard the rumors of his retiring from his post," he said. "Can you imagine him, next year, sitting up there in his house on Main street while we're down here? Art: Don't give any thought to it."

Following Mr. Cronkite's dream (lunch at his Island home for $25,000) was Mr. Wallace and his wife's offer to take three people to dinner at Le Cirque restaurant in New York city. "Boy, this is a tough one to follow - and McCullough," Mr. Wallace said, shaking his head. "Why should someone spend $25,000 on us?" he asked his wife.

The remark prompted Mr. Cronkite to poke some fun at his friend, for whom the bidding had stalled: "I do want to help the poor Wallaces along," he said. "Let me remind you: They're taking you to the finest restaurant in New York, so no matter what you bid, they're going to be paying more for dinner than you." The good humor was rewarded with $21,000.

As dusk fell the auctioneers picked up the pace. To sweeten her dream, Olga Hirshhorn said, "I'll tell you some secrets, too. I'll tell you how I met and married my three husbands." In the spirit of the evening, she added several lunches to the Hirshhorn Museum tour. "This isn't for me. This is for Art and Community Services," she said. The expanded dream brought in $7,000.

Despite Mr. Buchwald's earlier protests, the night ended - as it has so often - with the auctioning of his hat. Afterward he said to his audience, "You were terrific to stick around. This is the best auction we've ever had. Thank you."