Wayne Mallory kept an old dish soap bottle full of water handy as he gradually lit a porchful of paper and silk lanterns at his rental cottage just across from the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs Wednesday night. He and his wife, Linda, laughingly referred to the bottle as their fire hose, to be used in case a mishap resulted from using real candlelight to illuminate the lanterns, as opposed to the electric lights that have gained popularity in the past few decades. The lantern collection belongs to Dr. Albert Alexander, and several pieces date back over a hundred years. One in particular, painted with the design of an American flag with 35 stars, was made in 1863, the year before Nevada became the 36th state in America.
Four generations of Mallorys were gathered at the Oak Bluffs Camp Ground to celebrate the 140th Grand Illumination, along with a crowd that seemed to contain the entire population of the Vineyard. Strings of lanterns stretched as far as the eye could see. Some cottages displayed a modest assortment of the colorful globes, while others sported such sizeable collections that it seemed the lanterns were fighting their neighbors for space along the eaves.
Crowds of people spilled from the teeming Tabernacle benches out onto the surrounding lawn, which by 7:30 p.m. was a patchwork of picnic blankets. Glow sticks in neon blues, greens and pinks danced through the lawn, carried by children mesmerized by the energy and excitement of the celebration. The glow sticks have made regular appearances at the event for the past couple of decades. Dawn Arcudi Austin, a native Islander who now lives with her family in Seattle, remembers waving her own glow sticks as a child. “We used to wander around with them when I was a kid,” she said. “Now I’m buying them for my kids.”
At 8 p.m., Robert (Bob) Cleasby, programs director for the Camp Meeting Association, rose to open the community sing portion of the evening. Clad in red slacks and a matching red bow tie, Mr. Cleasby invited the masses to join in singing the national anthem, performed by the Vineyard Haven Band. A sense of patriotism permeated the crowd, no doubt intensified by the approaching presidential visit, as spectators sang along. Mr. Cleasby led the chorus of other favorites including Home on the Range, I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, and Amazing Grace. Band and piano music thundered through the Camp Ground, rivaled only by Mr. Cleasby’s bellowing lyrics. Carol Guthrie, high bidder for the Possible Dreams Auction’s opportunity to lead the band on Illumination Night, tried her hand at the role of conductor for a final performance before the big moment.
The clock neared 9 p.m. before the circus of people quieted to observe the announcement of this year’s first lantern lighter. “It’s magic time,” said Mr. Cleasby before turning the stage over to Camp Meeting Association vice president Craig Lowe. Spectators couldn’t contain their excitement as the Illumination approached, and the anxious chatter nearly drowned out Mr. Lowe’s voice as he introduced Ms. Elaine Pownall, an active participant in the Camp Ground, Sunday choir singer, and former cottage museum worker.
With the first lantern lit, a trickle of light spread from cottage to cottage throughout the Camp Ground, and front yards quickly began to swell with spectators eager to catch a snapshot or a close-up view of the magic. The Mallorys’ rental cottage fast became a popular destination as people gathered to study the antique globes, lit up the old-fashioned way. Wayne and Linda Mallory have been renting the same cottage for 16 years, returning yearly for the month of August. “We love Illumination, we love the fireworks, we love the Island,” explained Mrs. Mallory. Every year, she and her husband help display the ancient lanterns. The collection contains some of the oldest lanterns in the Camp Ground. “The lanterns are beautiful,” said Mrs. Mallory. “The Alexanders have done a wonderful job in keeping them restored.”
How has Dr. Albert Alexander maintained the lanterns over the years? “Very carefully,” he said with a smile. “We store them away and just take them out that one day a year.” He lives in East Chop, but comes to visit the Camp Ground every year for Illumination Night.
Just down the street, on Clinton avenue, a flock of excited great-grandchildren congregated around Ernie Mallory on his front porch. Mr. Mallory and his wife, Margaret, are Wayne Mallory’s parents, and have been renting their Oak Bluffs cottage for 47 years. “We’ve got about four generations here right now,” he said. The senior Mr. Mallory’s rental house stands apart from the crowd. Every lantern hanging from the porch was made in the shape of a hot air balloon. Mr. Mallory piloted hot air balloons for 16 years, and began to collect the paper lanterns at balloon rallies he attended around the country. “Before you know it, we had about 35 of them,” he said. “It was my wife’s idea, all the little animals,” he added, referring to the stuffed toys and dolls occupying the baskets of each balloon. “You’ve got to have a pilot in the balloon to fly it.”
Mr. Mallory was an airplane pilot before moving on to hot air balloons. “Then I took a balloon ride . . . and went to balloons,” he said. He hasn’t been able to fly in one for almost 10 years, but the yearly lantern display brings back all of his fond memories.
Band music continued to trickle through the streets as the crowds moved on, admiring the houses farther away from the Camp Ground as they passed. A group of children manned a cookie and lemonade stand; two little girls hosted a tea party for a group of American Girl dolls, and paper luminarias stamped with a youthful image of Michael Jackson were lined in tribute across the railing of one crowded porch. The heat remained even as the darkness settled and the night grew quieter, and weary walkers began to make their way back to far-off cars to try to beat the post-Grand Illumination traffic.
“What a nice night,” said one wistful passerby. “Yeah, they got a perfect night, didn’t they?” responded another.