On Saturday, July 29 at 6:30 p.m., I drove over to the Watermill Center on Water Mill Towd Road to enjoy an evening at the 24th Annual Watermill Center Summer Benefit & Auction, which raises money for the many programs at that performance art facility run by Robert Wilson.
About the same time of day three days later, I drove over to Bay Street in Sag Harbor to enjoy an evening of music performed by the Sag Harbor Community Band. Sag Harbor is the only town here that has a community band. They’ve been performing on the lawn in front of the Chelberg and Battle American Legion Auxiliary Hall Post 388 every Tuesday evening in July and August for 60 years.
I thought these two evenings created a very interesting contrast.
THE CROWDS ARRIVE
In Water Mill, about 300 of some of the best-dressed people in the Hamptons lined up, two at a time, several hundred yards along the shoulder of Water Mill Towd Road to await the opening of the gates and the issuing of the different colored wristbands to the different levels of guests—based on what was paid—to get in. Dress code on the invitation said Dark Shiny Matter. Police directed traffic on this road and a team of valets got everyone’s car keys, helped everyone out of their cars and handed out little tickets with numbers on them to the vehicle owners before sending them off to wait in line.
In Sag Harbor, people parked along the shoulder of the road anywhere they could find a space. The cars’ occupants, about 300 of them, got out of their cars, opened their trunks and took out folding aluminum lawn chairs, coolers of drinks and bags of food, then walked down the middle of the street over to the Legion Hall. The police had blocked a section of the road for about 200 yards. No cars allowed through. There were red traffic cones. The people walked between the traffic cones and unfolded their lawn chairs and sat down right on the street, facing the Legion Hall, arranging themselves in staggered rows.
The gates opened in Water Mill. The line of dazzling dressed people moved slowly. According to a Vanity Fair reporter, referring to the live auction: “Several dresses from Bibhu Mohapatra momentarily stole the show.” But servers with silver trays lined the walkway offering margaritas (or something) to quench everyone’s thirst after the wait. The walk, into a forest of six-foot-high tall grass, took guests under a 10-foot-high wooden frame, upon which lay a semi-transparent piece of plastic and, upon that, a very still young woman, face-down, who appeared to be, you couldn’t tell exactly, naked. People stopped to look up to see. It was blurry through the plastic.
In Sag Harbor, the people sat in the aluminum lawn chairs and waited. They talked happily with one another. Dress was come-as-you-are. Whatever. “Hey George, is that you?” Five people in lawn chairs got up and ran over to embrace George. “Come sit with us,” they urged. But he said no. “I’d rather sit with Jim here,” he said, referring to a man at the far end of the row. “Well, no holding hands!” “What was that?” “She said no holding hands!” And so they sat. Somebody had brought a blanket rather than a chair. “I can’t put this in the road,” she said, retreating to a piece of grass between the road and the parking lot opposite the hall. The section of road blocked off by the police extended all the way from Billy Joel’s house on the north to GeekHampton, the Apple computer repair and sales place, to the south. The road was a stadium. No cars at all.
The cost to get in in Water Mill was $650 just for the cocktail party, and $1,500 for cocktails and the dinner to follow. Dinner was highly anticipated. It would be environmentally correct and absolutely delicious. Then there was the auction. They raised $2 million for the Center’s programs.
In Sag Harbor, the event was free to anybody who wanted to watch and enjoy the music. At one point, between the “U.S. Field Artillery March” by John Philip Sousa and the “Sabre Dance” by Aram Khachaturian, the baton-wielding conductor of the band, David Brandenburg, announced over the microphone that a woman with an empty bell jar was walking around and if you wanted to put some money in, it would very much be appreciated. It’s all for the band, a nonprofit. I took $5 out of my wallet but the woman never came over to my lawn chair, so I put it back at the end of the night.
In Water Mill, new Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki assembled a team of highly trained terrorist officers in body armor, carrying machine guns, to keep everybody safe all evening. So as to not frighten everybody, they wore their armor under their uniforms.
In Sag Harbor, the only security people were the five members of the 3rd New York Regiment in colonial garb, carrying muskets with bayonets. They talked to folks at the event whom they knew, until it was time for the band to perform. Traffic police kept the road clear of cars.
In Water Mill, there were two honorees. They were celebrated French actress Isabelle Huppert and songwriter, artist and film director Laurie Anderson.
In Sag Harbor there were no honorees, but I was hoping they would dedicate the music to David Lee, the former village jeweler, percussionist, political activist and co-founder, along with “Pop” Mazzeo, of the Community Band back in 1958—who was beloved by so many people and who died last year at the age of 88. But they didn’t.
Among those attending in Water Mill were Simon de Pury (who doubled as auctioneer), Robert Downey Jr., Anne Huntington, Francesco Clemente and Neda Young, Mick Rock, Christophe de Menil and Lisa and Richard Perry. Also attending were David Kratz and Greg Unis, Sasha Pivovarova, Lucien Smith, Ale Soros, Kate Miller and Fern Mallis.
In Sag Harbor, the 300 or so attendees were almost all local folks: fishermen, merchants, dentists, doctors, landscapers, winery people, firemen and a minister or two. Also attending were five members of the New York 3rd Regiment, all dressed up in colonial soldier garb with muskets and bayonets, cartridge belts and waistcoats. They wandered around amongst us. Only three were redcoats, which was odd because the “1812 Overture,” during which they were going to fire a cannonade near the finale, marks the successful early foray into Russia of the French dictator Napoleon, who later on got badly beaten by Old Man Winter and had to retreat.
Twenty-one Artists in Residence under Robert Wilson’s tutelage are at the Watermill Center this summer, and they imagined, created and performed works of art for this fundraiser. The title of the evening was FLY INTO THE SUN. These 20 works for this event, each of which were in a nearby woods, could be walked through by the attendees. The first—after the young seemingly naked woman on the semitransparent plastic roof of the wooden frame—was a large, gloomy 20-foot-tall entry room, the center of which has a floor of heavy stone rocks that guests had to transit (even in high heels). Guides helped some who needed steadying across this. But two multi-colored monsters with huge eyes and enormous motorcycle chains were also in there, moving slowly this way and that, their chains making a jingling noise as they slid across the stones, but not bothering anybody.
Other entertainments included a 90-foot-long, 10-foot-high wall, one side of which had been painted by artist Jenny Holzer. It featured giant letters reading SHE OUTWITS HIM; SHE OUTLIVES HIM. The other side was a writing wall for the attendees. There were ladders and spray paint and paint in cans here and there to do so. Other works of art included a man half-buried in a huge bunch of bananas in a tree, a cotton-candy machine that issued puffs blown by a fan to the crowd walking by (to eat) and a playlet where two mimes kept pushing one or the other out of the spotlight. After dinner a female artist, naked, painted an abstract work of art on an enormous 20-foot-square canvas on the floor of the dining area courtyard using a large brush and red paint cans.
In Sag Harbor, the performers were tuba players, bass drum and cymbal players, trumpet and trombone players, violin players and clarinet players. “Everyone can join” it says on their website. So just show up and you can be given the music to play, provided you come to practice ahead of time.
Bandleader Brandenburg announced at the beginning that this performance would be all “Songs of Conflict.” He began by leading the 20-piece band in “The Crosley March” by Henry Fillmore, continued on with “Amazing Grace,” “The Gladiator March” by John Philip Sousa, “La Virgen de la Macarena” by Artoro Sandoval—“It’s like the popular song ‘Macarena,’” Brandenberg joked, “but backwards”—“The Big Cage” (the circus march by Karl King) and the Maori folk song and signature sign-off piece “Now Is the Hour.” People hummed along, tapped their feet and sang the verses they knew.
“And now,” the conductor said, “the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Because it was so popular last year, we’re doing it again—’The 1812 Overture’ by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.”
And so it began. As promised, the celebration of Napoleon’s triumphant march into Russia, finished by Tchaikovsky before Napoleon’s army began freezing to death, was performed smartly with the snare drum rat-a-tats and the bass drum thumps leading right up to the great climax. Assembling themselves alongside a Korean War artillery piece off to one side that could, if it fired even one shell, sink any of the large 150-foot private yachts in the slips across the street with one shot, were the five militiamen from the New York 3rd Regiment. They stood in a row, their weapons at their sides, waiting for their time to fire.
The music headed toward the end and, on cue, with a baton waggle from Brandenburg, the muskets were raised in the air and fired in unison, or almost in unison, at an exact appropriate moment. There was a crack and a flash of fire. The audience cheered. Several small children and dogs barked or cried, but others jumped for joy. The crack and flash happened four times near the end of the music, at about 30-second intervals. Then, the last notes of the music were accompanied as happy church bells rang and swirls of smoke and fumes descended over everything. Hooray, Napoleon!
Everybody applauded. Some coughed. The ten-inch artillery gun, corked, remained silent. What a finale!
And then came “The Star Spangled Banner.” The audience stood. Some with hands over their hearts, others holding New York Yankees baseball caps over their hearts, and we all sang mightily.
And then, all eyes turned toward this 50-foot- high flagpole on the front lawn of the Legion Hall, but nothing happened. No American flag got hoisted up to the top. It was an opportunity missed.
In Water Mill, the fancy people strolled down through the forest to the street where the mighty team of valet car parkers took their tickets and talked into microphones. In short order a car would appear, as would, on occasion, a tip from the owner.
In Sag Harbor, the smoke slowly cleared and everybody stood and folded up their chairs, gathered their bags of food and coolers and strolled slowly up the street to their parked cars, talking to one another about the pleasures of the evening and humming one or another of the songs played that evening.
It was a fine time had by all, in Water Mill or Sag Harbor—or both.