Camp Ground Basks in Glow Of Candlelight


A thousand happy voices sang Home on the Range and America the Beautiful, and then the lights came on. It happened this year, as it has of old, at the 132nd annual Grand Illumination on the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs.

Throngs came Wednesday night to see the grounds of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association bathed in lanterns’ glow. The paper lanterns were strung like Christmas tree lights on those already beloved gingerbread summer homes. This event, more than any other, marks the height of summer on the Vineyard.

Gary Zwicky, conductor of the Vineyard Haven Band, led the audience through a medley of familiar tunes that spanned the generations. The brass instruments in the band sparkled under the bright new stage lights. There was music by John Philip Sousa, Rogers and Hammerstein and George Gershwin.

Raymond Young, 83, and his son, Stefan Young, played the Tabernacle’s Steinway grand piano. They boisterously played a Brahms piece called Hungarian Dance and a Strauss tune called Chatterbox Polka. The grand piano shook and the sound reached out into the twilight.

Illumination Night is about family, about friends gathering on wooden benches to hear and share in the music of a happy summer. This year’s program had its celebratory moments; it had a somber one, too.

The evening’s honored guests, a husband and wife team, two Oak Bluffs residents, are leaving the community in the fall to join a retirement community in Florida. George and Shirley Martin were the evening’s stars. The two were selected to light the candle that lights the first lantern and signals the moment to illumine all the others in the cottage community.

The act is a symbolic gesture, linked to years ago when just one candle would light another until all the candles in the Grand Illumination were aglow. But this is a new millennium, an age when electricity safely brings the light.

Afterward, the Martins joined with all the others. They sat in the front row, they sang, they clapped their hands and they stood up and cheered at the appropriate moment.

“It is time to take off my jacket,” said Robert Cleasby, program director for the Camp Meeting Association, after waving his hands at the audience in song. “It is time for us to sing the Swiss Navy.”

The audience roared with laughter. And the Illumination Night favorite was followed easily. It called for participants to rise from their cheers, wave their arms, stand up and sit down on cue.

They sang In the Good Old Summertime and other favorite tunes. Outside the Tabernacle, dozens of children spun their green and blue light sticks.

Two voices came out loud and clear during the singing. Elizabeth Belbruno of Manchester, Conn., and Fran Salisbury of New York city, seated on a bench, harmonized with the audience. Their singing from amid the crowd invited people to turn their heads. Ms. Belbruno said she was a student opera singer and loved to sing.

Hanging from the ceiling of the Tabernacle were banners. One of them proclaimed the words from Genesis: “Surely God is in this place.”

The program neared its conclusion with the singing of America, the Beautiful, the words written in 1893 by Katharine Lee Bates of Falmouth.

Russ Dagnall, head of the Tabernacle restoration program, gave a progress report and a thank you to the community for its continued support. He said his group has raised raised $1.685 million towards the $2 million goal. The audience applauded. Mr. Dagnall asked whether there were a few people in the audience who might make up the difference. His comment brought laughter.

Kevin Lyttle, vice president of the Camp Meeting Association, stood at the podium to introduce the honored couple.

Mr. Lyttle said, “When we invited George and Shirley Martin to be our honored guests this evening, they expressed surprise that a couple so new to the Camp Ground would be recognized in this way.

“Although George and Shirley have been coming to the Camp Ground for only 25 years, it would probably take many of us 50 to 75 years to equal the contributions they have made to our community.”

George Martin was a board president, a former selectman and a leader in the Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Masonic organization.

Mr. Lyttle said: “While we can list many other contributions, the most lasting will be the friendship and love they have extended to many.”

Mr. Martin and his wife climbed the stairs to the stage amid cheers from the audience.

Mr. Martin said: “Shirley and I will light the first Grand Illumination lantern of the 21st century not as recognition for what we may have contributed to this village community, but as recognition, and as a testament, to the many people who have made this unique place all the positive things it represents to this beautiful Island.”

The lights in the Tabernacle went dim. A dim light burned on a candle held by the Martins.

Within a few moments, the lantern was carried up the aisle to the back of the Tabernacle and then, suddenly, all the lanterns of the Camp Ground were lit.

Under a black canopy filled with stars, the Grand Illumination Night was aglow with lanterns big and small.

The Vineyard Haven Band shifted their music to a medley of familiar band tunes. Visitors strolled by the hundreds past the doorways of every camp meeting home. The Camp Meeting Association headquarters opposite the Tabernacle was brightly lit.

Youngsters sold souvenirs and lanterns to visitors. Crowds wandered into the night.

“It is so magical,” said Connie Stanley of Edgartown.