I tell everyone not to do special events. No one ever figures in the true cost of these events by including all the staff time it takes, and organizations rarely recoup enough to make it worthwhile. Do as I say not as I did! Starting in 1984 we did a special event each year, a celebrity doodle auction, that kept us afloat.
We lifted the idea of auctioning off doodles from a Bay area playwrights’ group. It’s hard to ask people for money or time, but we thought it would be easy to ask for doodles. With Allan’s and our board’s connections it turned out to be a great choice, but definitely a labor intensive, year-round effort. As Allan put it in an interview about the event in the LA Times, ”There’s nobody I won’t approach. I’m absolutely shameless.”
Here’s how it worked: Jerry Berns, the big Valley realtor at the time, donated the beautiful shaded grounds of his estate on the corner of Fulton and Chandler (now subdivided many times over). About 200 people paid $50 each to stroll the grounds mid-afternoon munching on finger food (we’re talking thousands of hors d’oeuvres made by me and the staff) while drinking from the open bar. The open bar was key so everyone was well lubricated before the bidding started.
There was a silent auction for the less important doodles, and Allan was the auctioneer for the bigger ones. The event grew from 50 doodles the first year to more than 175 in 1989, all signed, plexiglass-framed original works.
From an interview with Allan in The Times:
“Walter Matthau and Paul Newman, (‘People I knew personally to some degree’) were early recruits. So was Gregory Peck, with whom Miller had worked on the film ‘MacArthur.” He knew Arthur Miller’s sister Joan Copeland and used that as his entrée to the playwright. ‘I’d also worked with Olympia Dukakis. We both taught at the same university; we both ran small theatres. So, when Michael Dukakis was running [for president] last year, I sent him a letter stressing I was a friend of his cousin’s.”
“Dukakis’ reply doodle was a drawing of the White House, captioned, ‘Not a bad place to live.’ A bidder, anticipating a Democratic win in November, paid $2,200, the auction’s all-time highest price. The year before, then-Vice President George Bush sent a doodle. ‘The person who bought it was hoping he’s be running for president in ’88,’ Miller said. He got it for a very modest price.’ [My comment: worth a lot now! It depicted rabbits watching rabbits.]
“The second highest price, $2,000, was for a John Huston drawing, done just before he died.” It was of Hamlet looking at the skull saying, “Alas, poor Yorick.”
Doodles like the one by Lakers Coach Pat Riley that diagramed the play that beat the Celtics in game 6 of the 1985 championship series drew sports fanatics and serious bidding.
The gross grew from $9,000 the first year to $39,000 in 1988 (almost $100K in 2023 dollars), with a net of about $30,000, not a bad net as these things go. The newspaper coverage, both leading up to the events and after, was extensive—all the papers wanted to run doodles by celebs. My biggest memory was coming into the office on the Monday after each auction and gleefully paying off the stack of bills that had accumulated over the previous months.