Illumination Night Magic Clears Clutter of a More Hectic Century


Maybe it's the sound: giggling, try-and-catch-me children, laughing adults, backyard party chatter.

Maybe it's the color: pastels and bright hues sprinkled over pathways and porches and suspended in mid-flight like handfuls of confetti.

Maybe it's all the smiles: people on front porch rocking chairs or strolling along walkways; everyone ready to pose for pictures and tell you their names, as if they have been commissioned to talk to strangers.

However it is done, the Grand Illumination on the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association grounds in Oak Bluffs, has been a uniquely Vineyard tradition for 134 years. It is so affecting it erases, for the moment, the commotion and clutter of the 21st century, replaces it with a children's book illustration, decorates it with paper parasols and painted lanterns, and sets it to patriotic music.

The Camp Ground becomes a clap-if-you-believe magical place in which cottages have sentimental names and the consensus of friendship and good spirit is tangible.

The Vineyard Haven Band, under the baton of conductor Bill Eriksen, began at 7:30 p.m., before the glow sticks had begun to bloom. People lounged on blankets, cruising, flirting and playing games on the grass. At the Oak Bluffs Fire Engine No. 3, a precaution as well as tradition, children shorter than the truck wheels were allowed to sit in the driver's seat while their parents took their pictures.

Every hand seemed to have grown a camera like an extra thumb, as if the scope and feel of the evening could be captured and held in a digital image.

Bob Falkenburg, who manages the Camp Ground gift shop, was on the porch of the MVCMA building, selling T-shirts and rice paper lanterns (12 small ones for $9) with help from 10-year-old grandson Jack Rogers. Mr. Falkenburg admitted it's hard to return to his home in New Hampshire. "Every year, we would sit on the ferry, say goodbye, and our children would cry."

His grandson nodded. "I miss it when I have to go back home."

Looking stylish in her summer finery, Eleanor Shabica, 89, took her place on the porch where she has watched this event since 1918. Her Rhode Island-based father first rented the gingerbread house - $50 for the summer season - then bought it two years later in 1920 for $500. "And I have not missed a summer in all those years," she said proudly.

Over the sounds of music and applause coming from the Tabernacle, Mrs. Shabica watched the people on parade in front of her porch. "It's a nice crowd. Of course, I've been here so long I know everybody. I love people. They're so wonderful. You get some who think we're funny; funny little people in a funny little house. And you know, that's all right."

She remembered when rods were placed in the grass around the Tabernacle and lanterns with candles were strung on ropes between them; remembered when Boy Scouts would light the candles. "We used to help put the candles in the lanterns. Our fingers would get blistered, but I think that's the best memory."

John Child, whose wife, Island native Martha Mosher plays the flute and piccolo in Vineyard Haven Band, remembered coming to Illumination Night when they were dating. Art teacher Nancy Blank has been coming to Illumination Night for 60 years, ever since she was born. The house next door to hers was her grandfather's. Together with program director Bob Cleasby and his wife Marietta, Mrs. Blank traditionally teaches lantern painting before the night of the event.

People were standing five deep and 10-deep around the Tabernacle. The band played music selections from Meredith Wilson's Music Man. Sounding as crisp and accomplished as they looked in their navy polo shirts and white slacks, they played all the patriotic favorites while feet tapped the beat, heads bobbed and babies were gently bounced in time.

After father and son pianists Raymond and Stefan Young finished filling the air with rousing music (another tradition of the event), Mr. Cleasby, in bright red slacks, spectacles at the end of his nose, and a boutonniere the size of a wrist corsage, took over as master of the singalong. With a practiced air he inspired the overflowing hall. "Who has been coming for 50 years?" he asked, and hands were raised to applause.

As he conducted with extravagant sweeps of his arms, people began singing as if they had just discovered their voices and sound was a gift.

And so it is. As night fell, corporate presidents and housekeepers, painters and politicians began singing songs such as Home on the Range and My Wild Irish Rose with genuine expression. "Let's rock this place," Mr. Cleasby charged, and a scowling, elderly man on an aisle seat, suddenly found his voice and was transformed with a smile.

Soon Mr. Cleasby had the packed crowd doing pantomimes, standing and sitting on cue, and playing musical games. After conductor-emeritus Gary Zwicky energetically led the band in a series of classic favorites, it was time for the lighting ceremony.

The honor of lighting the first lamp was extended to Bill and Eleanor Lane, seasonal cottagers at "Over the Rainbow" for 40 years. The Lanes were introduced by Russell Dagnall, the Camp Meeting Association president. He described Mr. Lane as a tireless volunteer who has participated in all phases of MVCMA activity. Mr. Lane began coming to the Vineyard in 1947 and has been an MVCMA board member for close to 25 years, serving several terms as president. The Lanes, from Macon, Ga., have remained active volunteers at the Camp Ground.

After being called to the stage, the modest Mr. Lane noted, "I think we are now living as a community, working together on the same goals, mainly for the repair and the renewal of the Tabernacle. I think we're going in the right way." He thanked those who "give their time and their work, as well as their fellowship and community so this place may survive for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren."

Mrs. Lane then gleefully added, "Let there be candlelight." And there was. As they carried the candlelit lantern up the aisle, lanterns all over the Camp Ground suddenly shone with color and the enthusiastic throng applauded and cheered.

Before the crowd dispersed for the promenade around the streets, Mr. Eriksen made a surprise presentation to longtime band member Ed Knapp, the band's trumpeter for almost 14 years. He was given parting gifts, including a recording of the evening's concert on this, his last performance with the band. Chilmark residents, the Knapps will be leaving the Island for their new home in Exeter, N.H. Mr. Eriksen noted Mr. Knapp's willingness to help in a variety of ways. "He is the guy you can always count on," he said.

In an earlier conversation, Frank Dunkl, president of the Vineyard Haven Band, remembered, "If there was something to be fixed, he fixed it. He's not only knowledgeable, he's so cooperative. He's been involved in so much - the community will really miss him."