Possible Dreams Auction Raises Record Sum

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By ALEXIS TONTI

A bit of spontaneity, a little arm-twisting and a contagious spirit of generosity turned last night into another record-breaking year for the Possible Dreams Auction. The 26th annual benefit raised more than $515,000 in about three hours for Martha's Vineyard Community Services, just surpassing last year's half-million mark.

The auction began yesterday under cloudy skies in the garden of the Harborside Inn in Edgartown. Assistant auctioneers Rick Lee and Susan Klein took the stage, along with Sixty Minutes commentator Mike Wallace.

"The word is that it is raining in Oak Bluffs," Mr. Wallace declared. He lifted his arms to the overcast sky. "But as usual, never a drop when Art Buchwald is on the premises."

By way of introduction, Mr. Wallace said, "Everyone knows him. Everyone loves him. Everyone comes to see him when he does this, despite having retired time after time: I give you Art Buchwald."

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In his signature suspenders and with Panama hat in hand, the longtime auctioneer took his seat behind the podium. He wasted no time. Of his decision to return to the auction a year after retiring, he said simply, "Last year Walter Cronkite said he was sure I'd be back - and Walter Cronkite has never lied."

Mr. Buchwald then warmed up with a few political jabs. "I'm going to take an informal poll. How many of you out there think you are worse off today than you were four years ago?" In response to the sea of raised hands, he said, "Then what the hell are you doing here?"

He concluded: "Let the games begin."

The auction started slowly, and the first dozen dreams went without much fanfare or frenzy. Prospective buyers cast their bids in $100 increments. "Who started this trend?" asked Ms. Klein. "Here we go up by $5,000 and $10,000."

It took a walk-on role for the HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm - with the chance to meet series creator Larry David - to really get the crowd going. The bids climbed quickly to $15,000. Out of the sudden confusion and shouting, with one man raising the stakes from a balcony above and another responding from a lawn seat near the auctioneers, it seemed a bidding war was developing.

"Call Larry. We might be able to sell this thing twice," said Mr. Lee - who proceeded to rattle off the comedian's phone number, causing something of a stir among the audience members. Realizing what he had done, Mr. Lee said wryly: "I guess everyone's rushing to write that one down."

Mr. David wasn't reachable, and the dream was sold only once, for $18,000.

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The chance to meet Mr. David sweetened a dream later in the evening as well. Up for grabs was a multi-course dinner prepared by a quartet of Island chefs and served aboard a 120-foot yacht. But only when Mr. David was revealed as one of the promised mystery guests did the bidding take off.

The gavel came down at $20,000.

All of the money raised last night goes to Community Services' otherwise unfunded programs, among them Early Childhood Programs, Women's Support Services, Visiting Nurse Service and the Island Counseling Center.

"I am going to pause here for a commercial," Mr. Buchwald said early on. "I want to remind you why we're here. We are very much a part of [Community Services] budget - the whole bag, all the services. And tonight we're saying to people, yes, I love the Vineyard and I don't want to leave without giving something back.

"So let's see a lot more money."

Taking one of the more extravagant dreams out of order, Ms. Kline started the bidding on a trip to the Monaco Grand Prix in Monte Carlo. The final price was $35,000. Also out of order came the chance to buy two orchestra seats to a premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. The gavel cracked at $10,500.

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Next up was a crowd favorite, singer and songwriter Livingston Taylor. Mr. Taylor - who was on the block with an offer of a private concert at his waterfront home - took the stage almost halfway through the auction. And with a single sweet a cappella song, he proved to be the only person capable of silencing the garden party.

Afterward the bidding began, climbed sharply to $35,000, then stalled amid cries for another song. "You're going to make the man sing for his supper?" said Ms. Klein.

Without hesitation Mr. Taylor brought his guitar on stage for a medley of patriotic songs. He closed by leading the audience in God Bless America. For his efforts he received a standing ovation - and a final bid of $38,000.

"Now we're getting serious," Mr. Buchwald declared.

The feeling was electric. The auction had hit its stride. A movie premiere and after party with Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer went for $22,000. A 10-day stay at a private estate in the hills of Kula, Maui, garnered $42,000 - the night's top-selling dream. A trip to Philadelphia aboard the 76ers private plane raised $21,000, and seats at this year's American Music Awards raised $18,000.

With dusk falling, the audience offered a second standing ovation to veteran newscaster Walter Cronkite. Mr. Cronkite announced he was changing his dream from lunch at his Vineyard home to lunch aboard his sailboat. The reason, he said, was pure gamesmanship - a chance to one-up his Possible Dreams competitor.

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"The truth is Mike Wallace does this to me every year. I promise a meal, then he comes along and offers to take 50 guests, 100 guests, to a fine restaurant in New York - a wonderful gesture, but I can tell you the restaurant is very dark, very crowded, very nouveau-something."

The winning bid for Mr. Cronkite's company: $25,000.

Mr. Wallace's dream came on the block immediately afterward. "That's the story of my life, always living in the shadow of the most trusted man in America," he said.

The dinner offer pulled in $21,000.

The temperature dropped and the fog rolled in off the water as the auction came into its home stretch. About 15 dreams remained. Some bidders were still going strong. Others settled back in their chairs to watch and to talk with friends. Tickets to next year's Super Bowl took in $10,000. A walk-on role for the television series Monk raised $6,000. And an unusual tour of a series of prehistoric caves went for $7,000.

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With a few more sharp cracks of the gavel, the auction was just about over. Only one dream was left on the program - from Mr. Buchwald himself, the hat off his head. It is by now tradition. The bids rose quickly, the gavel came down and the hat was sold for $4,500.