The bittersweet news is out: PONCHO, Seattle’s granddaddy of all charity auctions, is closing its doors.
In late February, PONCHO announced it will cease operations on April 30 and establish a legacy fund at the Seattle Foundation. By eliminating office and staffing costs, the organization can continue to live on as a fund for the arts community.
That’s not to say that the PONCHO we once knew won’t be sorely missed and fondly remembered.
The organization was born 50 years ago, not long after the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair ended. One prime attraction at the fair was the Seattle Symphony’s expensive production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida.” Although the opera, much like the fair, was a huge success, the lavish production of “Aida” left the Symphony $35,000 in the hole. But not to worry.
Symphony supporters like philanthropist Paul Friedlander dreamed up a charity auction, designed principally to pay off the Symphony debt. They came up with the name PONCHO, an acronym for a forgettable phrase: “Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations.”
The auction not only put the Seattle Symphony in the black, it raised enough extra seed money to establish the Seattle Opera.
The PONCHO concept envisioned a black-tie affair with fabulous one-of-a-kind items and experiences — from the keys to a brand new Porsche Boxter to a backyard performance by the full Garfield High School Orchestra. The experience was a winner, becoming an almost instant blueprint for arts funds across the nation.
The concept even crossed the Pacific Ocean. Arts supporters in Australia arrived to ask how they could have their own PONCHO to help arts organizations down-under. And so a school for fundraisers was born, taught by PONCHO auctioneers Dick and Sharon Friel, who annually helped the Aussies with their cultural charities.
Meanwhile, PONCHO thrived in Seattle. The organization helped boost Seattle arts for the next 50 years. In those more than five decades, PONCHO awarded more than $35 million to 218 established and neophyte arts organizations. Benefactors included the backbone of the Seattle arts community, from Cornish College of the Arts to the Seattle Arts Museum, as well as dozens of lesser-known arts organizations.
PONCHO became the Good Housekeeping Seal of approval for fledging arts organizations. The agency’s acceptance of avant garde groups marked their entry into the main stream: “If they have PONCHO’s backing, they must have merit.”
PONCHO held its glitzy black-tie event annually for the next 46 years. And what a party it was during those decades. C. David Hughbanks, who chaired the auction in 1980, remembers that his position amounted to a full-time job for an entire year. He says, “How many people can devote that much time? Perhaps a Junior Leaguer? Or someone who owns his or her own business?”
What delivered the glitz were the dozens and dozens of full-time workers, paid and unpaid. Public relations executive Pat Feary, who owned her own firm, served as president in 1993. As she recalls, “I worked all day and then went to my full-time night job with PONCHO.” She said, “It takes an army to make it happen.”
I remember covering PONCHO as a Times columnist in 1998, the year it set the Sheraton Hotel afire. (I was able to attend only because, as a member of the press, I was covering the event. Otherwise, I couldn’t have afforded that year’s ticket. Prices ranged from $300-600.)
Cathi Hatch, serving as that year’s president, decreed that PONCHO should paint the town red. Gowned handsomely in a red courtiere gown, she was carried into the Sheraton seated on an immense sedan-chair throne. The Sheraton’s entire ballroom was draped floor to ceiling in red velvet. That evening, Auctioneer Dick Friel charmed guests out of a record $2 million to benefit scores of local arts groups.
Typically, PONCHO aimed higher and amassed more each year, but eventually time took its toll. PONCHO, the granddaddy of the charity auctions, had spawned a dozen other charity galas in Seattle, all competing for donations and volunteers. PONCHO itself broke into three events: the annual gala flanked by independent wine and arts auctions.
Most recently, the volunteers and staff at PONCHO sat down and, bottom-line oriented, tallied up the numbers. What does it take to put on an extravaganza? Perhaps $2 million. And what would you raise? Perhaps $1 million, exclusive of expenses. Is it worth the outsized effort?
Hughbanks thinks that the auction pattern still works if you’re raising money for a single charity, say your kid’s school. As he points out, much of the proceeds for the single charity now come in the form of “raise the paddle,” straight-out monetary contributions.
The departure of the PONCHO gala won’t be an end to a cause. The organization will still be managed by an advisory board, partnering with the Seattle Foundation to promote cultural and charitable causes. People will be encouraged to contribute and to leave legacies. No question that folks in Seattle still care passionately about the arts.
And then there will be the memories. There are more than 50 years of them.
Just last week, I spoke with attorney Llew Pritchard, a long-time PONCHO supporter. Llew sadly had just learned of the death of Robert (Bobby”) Arnold, one of the earliest and staunchest PONCHO supporters.
“Bobby would show up the morning after the auction," Llew recalled. "He’d drive onto the set in a fancy new car, set up the bar and mix drinks for the workers, volunteers and all the bidders who showed up to pick up their auction items. It was the best party of all.”