More than 2,000 people gathered in the Tabernacle Saturday night to celebrate the structure's 125th birthday.
Grandparents, grandchildren, and everyone in between filled the rows, sitting on some of the same benches used in the 1800s, when the religious campers gathered under the oak trees and the canvas tent that predated the Tabernacle's construction in 1879.
"It had begun to look its age - and so have I," said the evening's host, newsman and Vineyard Haven summer resident Mike Wallace, complimenting achievements of the Tabernacle's current restoration project.
And the Tabernacle did look radiant. Newly installed period lanterns glowed over the crowd. Freshly painted in historically accurate colors, the building's ironwork soared up to the stained glass windows of the clerestory, lit by a long sunset. Photographers darted around, attempting to capture the scene on film.
Mr. Wallace pleased the crowd with his banter. "This chorus here," he said, gesturing toward the Island Community Chorus behind him, "they've cleaned up very well since this morning," in reference to the dress rehearsal earlier in the day. Mr. Wallace asked "beloved tyrant" Peter Boak, director of the chorus, to have the singers demonstrate their vocal warm-ups for the audience, a ritual that consisted of a sequence of elaborate hand gestures and long, melodramatic sighs.
Mr. Wallace's narration of major historical events in the community, the country and the world since the first Martha's Vineyard camp meeting in 1835 was interwoven with a musical program of popular songs from various eras. The program was a blend of classroom history lecture and musical revue.
The chorus, accompanied on the Steinway piano by Dan Murphy, kicked off the evening with the song Dear Old Martha's Vineyard, written in 1915.
Mr. Wallace's text darted from local events (the construction of the Carpenter's Gothic cottages in the 1860s; the first Grand Illumination in 1869; President Grant's Camp Ground visit in 1874) to national events (the Civil War, the Roaring Twenties, women's emancipation, the civil rights movement) to world events (the two World Wars, Vietnam, the Cold War, 9/11) and back again.
Though an 1879 article in the Vineyard Gazette documenting the first service in the Tabernacle made no mention of the specific songs at the event, focusing instead on the bishop's lengthy sermon, the program might have included Praise Ye, Praise the Lord, a popular hymn at the time. And the chorus performed a moving version Saturday night.
A song sheet was passed out to audience members, and they were encouraged to sing along with several of the songs. The older generation seemed particularly eager to join in for a World War II song, The White Cliffs of Dover.
"One of the jewels of Oak Bluffs," Mr. Boak said, introducing soloist Sabrina Luening. Her rich, clear voice effortlessly delivered Duke Ellington's Come Sunday. Ms. Luening had to return to the stage to bow again, because the audience didn't want to stop clapping for her performance.
The audience came alive with foot-tapping during the chorus's jazzy delivery of Happy Days Are Here Again, Franklin Roosevelt's campaign song; and bass Glenn Carpenter captivated the crowd with his deep, powerful voice during a solo performance of Old Man River.
But the performance on stage was not all there was to see.
The iron arches of the Tabernacle framed another stage - the park surrounding the Tabernacle. A toddler played hide-and-seek in the bushes; teenagers sat on park benches; a group of boys threw a ball while their parents watched; couples strolled by; a boy passed on a scooter; mothers holding babies leaned against the arches. Evening fell over the Camp Ground, and the fresh smell of grass drifted into the Tabernacle. All the action outside demonstrated the importance of the Tabernacle as a part of everyday life.
"Could we have audience lights?" Mr. Boak asked before directing the final song of the evening. "I want to be able to see them [the audience], because this is such a fabulous piece of music." The lights went up and everyone joined in singing America the Beautiful - written by Falmouth native Katherine Lee Bates and performed as arranged by former Vineyard Haven Band director Gary Zwicky. "There was a magic between the singers and the audience," Mr. Boak later described it.
The song received a standing ovation.
The Tabernacle "is treasured by our Island community as a place for worship and meditation, a place for celebration and the arts, a place for us to be a community," Mr. Wallace said, prompting a second standing ovation.
And he said afterward: "It was such a satisfying evening to come back here to see how much has been done already with the renovation, and to feel the Vineyard community we love so dearly."
The program suited the building perfectly - it was grand and awe-inspiring, while maintaining a light-hearted, welcoming air.