Seattle-based PONCHO (Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural, and Charitable Organizations) was formed in 1963 by a small group of civic leaders to help the Seattle Symphony pay off a large debt resulting from its 1962 World's Fair production of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida. So successful was PONCHO's initial fundraiser -- a black-tie gala auction -- that the volunteer group continued its annual event to support cultural organizations in the state of Washington. Collaborative, creative, visionary, and endlessly hard-working, PONCHO continued to surpass its yearly goals, along the way adding a no-tie auction, an international wine auction, and an art auction in order to raise more money. Since its formation, the nonprofit organization has provided in excess of $35 million in support of more than 200 arts organizations, the largest sums over the years being given to the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Art Museum, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle Opera, Seattle Repertory Theatre, A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), Seattle Children's Theatre, and Cornish College of the Arts. Marking its 50th birthday in February of 2013, PONCHO announced it would end its daily operations in April and become a legacy fund within the Seattle Foundation. PONCHO was a major influence in establishing and continuing a thriving arts scene in the region, and the organization can count as a legacy the building of the charitable auction industry, of which Seattle has been a world leader.
It Happened at the World's Fair
Seattle's cultural scene changed significantly following the 1962 Century 21 World's Fair. Preparations for the fair started in the 1950s with its initial promotion by Edward "Eddie" Carlson (1911-1990). About the same time, other visionaries and civic boosters, including a group that would become Allied Arts, were making plans for cultural and civic improvements. These individuals and groups came together to help bring the World's Fair to Seattle in 1962.
The Century 21 World's Fair was a game changer for the city. It not only introduced Seattle to the world, it left it with a legacy of new buildings. It also gave Seattleites a tantalizing view of the city's potential. The fair's futuristic theme, with its heavy bent on science, still showcased the arts. Museums from around the world loaned masterpieces and Pacific Northwest artists were featured, as was Northwest Coast Indian art.
Preparations for the fair included converting the old Civic Auditorium building into an Opera House, where the Seattle Symphony staged its first-ever opera production, Giuseppe Verdi's Aida. With a cast of 333, the opera played on June 7, 9, and 11, 1962, to sellout crowds. But the production cost of $185,000 exceeded the ticket revenue, leaving the symphony with a debt of $35,000. The symphony was in danger of bankruptcy.
PONCHO's origins can be traced to Ruth Blethen (later Clayburgh, 1910-2002), a member of the Seattle Symphony board, who approached Seattle civic leader Paul Friedlander (1912-1994) in 1962 and explained the symphony's plight. Friedlander remembered that Portland had staged an auction called ZOOMSI the previous year and had successfully raised funds for the Portland Zoo and Museum of Science and Industry. Blethen recalled Friedlander's words, "If Portland can do it for animals, Seattle can do it for people" (Katz, 5).
Friedlander and Blethen met with arts activist Katherine (LaGasa) "Kayla" Skinner (1919-2004), and the three began planning, forming a group called Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural, and Charitable Organizations. The name was quickly shortened to PONCHO. This self-appointed committee began building a supportive group of friends and civic leaders, and on September 13, 1962, the group held a luncheon at the Olympic Hotel. This was followed by a meeting at the Rainier Club. Each time the group grew larger. A board of eleven trustees was selected, headed by Friedlander, who began consulting with Portland's ZOOMSI planners for fundraising advice.
PONCHO was formed as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization on January 25, 1963, by an "Agreement of Association" and Articles of Incorporation -- signed by Kayla Skinner, David E. Skinner, Dan J. Conley, Lex McAtee, Paul S. Friedlander, Howard S. Wright (1927-1996), Barbara G. Rauscher (later Wise, 1924-2007), Edward A. Rauscher, and Richard Moser. Washington Secretary of State Victor A. Meyers certified the organization on February 4, 1963. That date stands as PONCHO's official birthday.
PONCHO set up an office in the Washington Building in Seattle and began plans for a grand fundraising auction, with a goal of $100,000. The volunteer circle continued to grow.
This first PONCHO auction was a plush black-tie event held on April 27, 1963, at the Seattle World's Fair Fine Arts Pavilion, later called Exhibition Hall. Attendees paid an entry fee of $150 to dine, have drinks, listen to live music, and bid on more than 200 auction items that included a new $45,000 home (it sold for $46,000), vacation trip packages, pets, a yacht cruise, and much more. The lavish event brought in $124,875, enough to retire the symphony's $35,000 debt, with $50,000 more granted to establish a fund designated for opera production only, a total of $85,000. In addition, $15,000 was given to the Council on Aging and $1,000 to the Seattle Chorale. It was a profitable start.
So successful was the auction -- and so great was the citizen support for the cause -- that PONCHO decided to continue its fundraising to support arts and culture in the Puget Sound region. The event soon became Seattle's party of the year.
PONCHO board members approached their fundraising with an exuberant spirit of fun and a sky's-the-limit attitude. They were all movers and shakers in the community, and their connections and optimism drew strong media coverage from the start. Dr. Solomon Katz, an early and influential PONCHO board member, expressed the nature of the early years in this way:
"Despite the adoption of a set of formal By-Laws, PONCHO's structure was still tentative as the trustees felt their way along uncharted paths … From the beginning, PONCHO board meetings, perhaps even more, PONCHO committee meetings, have been informal, loosely structured and free ranging. Robert's Rules of Order have often been honored more in breach than in observance and sometimes, as some PONCHO board members have remarked, organized chaos prevails. Eppur si muove, 'still it does move,' as Galileo is said to have remarked of another phenomenon, and the business of PONCHO has, nevertheless, been transacted, as the results clearly demonstrate, efficiently and with enthusiasm tempered by good sense, and with a saving sense of humor and gaiety that mark all of PONCHO's activities" (Katz, 13).
Committee names were somewhat in flux, an example being the team designated to build a home for auction, which was, in the first few years, sometimes referred to as the House Committee, sometimes the Home Committee, and later the Construction Committee. Everyone knew what was meant. At the start, there was both a women's Acquisition Committee and a men's Procurement Committee, each with the task of acquiring auction items. These committees became competitive teams, as members tried to secure the best, the craziest, and always a few unique auction items. As the group's numbers grew, they formed teams, calling themselves "Singles vs. Couples," "Eastside vs. Seattle," etc.
Donations of goods and services came from individuals and businesses, and items ranged from very good deals to bizarre items. These included vacation cruises to exotic places; a 1924 Seagraves fire engine; animals of all kinds who, when purchased, usually were given the name PONCHO; "Irish Mission," a rare horse purchased for $1,000 that turned out to be a winner at Longacres later at odds of 24 to 1; boats of all kinds; packaged tours; paintings and other art works; dinner with celebrities, including pianist Van Cliburn (1934-2013) and opera singer Beverly Sills (1929-2007); a child's birthday party for 100 guests; 500 hamburgers; a lie detector; burial services for a pet; 15,000 yards of manure and straw; a rhinoceros head; and much more. One of PONCHO's most lucrative auction items for many years was a new home. At the initial fundraiser, the sale price of the PONCHO home alone exceeded the money needed to pay off the symphony's debt.
Except for the first two years, each annual gala had a theme, until 1995 when this was abandoned. Paul Friedlander served as PONCHO president for the first three years, but soon presidents served for one year only, the vice president moving into the president's role following each annual gala.
Growing the Cultural Scene in the 1970s
Despite economic bad times in the early 1970s, the collaborative efforts of various groups in Seattle led to a huge growth of arts and culture in the region by the end of the decade. When PONCHO began, major cultural groups in the area included Cornish College of the Arts on Capitol Hill, the Seattle Art Museum at Volunteer Park, the Cirque Playhouse, the Seattle Symphony, and the Seattle Repertory Theatre, both of the latter performing at Seattle Center, the former fairgrounds. In the next 15 years, Seattle would see the creation of dozens more arts and cultural organizations such as A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Northwest Chamber Orchestra, Seattle Opera, Poncho (later Children's) Theatre, and Intiman Theatre.
Allied Arts was a continual partner for these groups and PONCHO became a major funder. During this time, the Corporate Council for the Arts and the Seattle and King County Arts Commissions were formed, and in 1971 the Poncho Theatre, funded by PONCHO and the City of Seattle and designed for young audiences, officially opened at the Woodland Park Zoo. This was the beginning of Seattle Children's Theatre, which would move to Seattle Center in 1993. PONCHO initiated a smaller disco party and auction that ran for two years, 1977 and 1978, but was then abandoned. These were the same years that the group brought in big stars -- Bob Hope in 1977 and Vic Damone in 1978 -- but it was felt that the celebrity draw was a distraction from the event's purpose.
One of PONCHO's biggest talents from the start was its ability to leverage. As early as 1965 PONCHO undertook a study to determine the group's role in building cooperation among performing and visual arts organizations in the region. This led to its support of the United Arts Council, which became the Corporate Council for the Arts. As other arts funding became available at the state and national level, PONCHO donations could make a bigger impact. Cultural groups no longer needed to just get by -- they could begin to thrive. PONCHO played a huge role in making that happen.
Big Accomplishments: 1981 to 1995
With so much activity, PONCHO expanded its board in the 1970s, drawing in new and younger talent. Board members felt that PONCHO needed a strong executive director and found one in Judith A. Whetzel. She remained in that position from 1981 through 1995, marking a period of major accomplishments and changes. Whetzel came with an impressive background. She had initiated and organized the Seattle city ordinance that allocated 1 percent of capital construction funds for the visual arts and had served on the boards of the Junior League and the Washington State Arts Commission. Her work just before coming to PONCHO was as a lobbyist for Washington State Arts Advocates.
When Whetzel arrived at PONCHO, the offices were in Madison Park, directly above the Red Onion Tavern. In Whetzel's words, "I could look down at the pool table through a crack in the floor in front of the copying machine. Whenever anyone came to visit, they stopped the entire operation; the minute you walked in the door, you were in our offices and you had everyone's attention. Many people enjoyed this format and our days were lively" (Whetzel retirement speech, 1).
In 1981, with only one other staff member, the PONCHO gala raised $400,000 for the arts. Fourteen years later -- when Whetzel retired -- the organization had grown to a staff of five and about 700 volunteers, who were handling both the annual gala fundraiser and an International Wine Auction (begun in 1991 under PONCHO president Carl Behnke). PONCHO's contribution to the arts in 1995 was $1,250,000.
The PONCHO board during these years was dynamic and it was a time of technology change. A gift in 1982 from Fluke Capital and Management allowed PONCHO to become fully computerized. This meant converting the group's card files and changing its manner of tracking procured items, listing revenues, and handling party reservations and sales. PONCHO also was able to begin computerized bidding -- what staff referred to as the "Bid-O-Gram."
PONCHO made other changes. In 1985 the board elected its first woman president, Faye Sarkowsky; played a key role in moving ACT from Queen Anne Hill to a new home in the Eagles Auditorium; helped grow the Seattle Rep, Intiman, and Empty Space theaters into first-class operations; was a major player in building the Seattle Opera into a world-class operation; and helped establish a home for the Pacific Northwest Ballet.
During this time, PONCHO also made several location moves, including a shift of its offices in 1989 to the Lloyd Building in downtown Seattle, giving the group its first real office space. A bigger change, however, came in 1984 when the auction gala moved from the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall to Seattle's Sheraton Hotel. The Sheraton offered several advantages, such as easy parking and overnight lodging for travelers who came from a distance. Also the space at the Exhibition Hall was limited to one large room that each year was ably decorated and transformed with the help of the Bon Marche and volunteers. The Sheraton offered the advantage of a parking lot tent that could accommodate large items such as boats and vans. But as longtime PONCHO board member C. David Hughbanks (1936-2023) remembered of those years in the Exhibition Hall, "It was much more fun in the early days when we closed the auction just about when the early morning risers met the chirping birds in the London Plane trees on Mercer Street" (Hughbanks email). At the Sheraton, more dollars were raised but the cost of staging became increasingly expensive; though the net results were larger, fewer dollars were left to give to the beneficiaries.
The Charity Auction
One of PONCHO's biggest legacies is the group's leadership role in creating a charity auction industry, of which Seattle has been a world leader. This evolved through collaboration with various auctioneers, perhaps the most memorable being husband-and-wife team Richard E. Friel (1933-2010) and Sharon Lund Friel. As Sharon Friel explained, a charity auction is different from a regular commercial auction: With a regular auction people come to buy a particular item, but with a charity auction they come to support a cause or a friend who is sponsoring a table and have to be persuaded to buy auction items, so the charity auctioneer needs to be a great showman (Friel interview).
Items that were the biggest draws were things that money could not buy, such as a 1987 auction chance to wash an elephant at the Woodland Park Zoo or -- a recurring favorite -- accompanying the crew on a Boeing delivery flight. Dick Friel was so successful as an auctioneer that he and Sharon began to teach classes in and out of the region, even carrying the concept to Australia, accompanied by Judith Whetzel, in 1985.
Meeting New Challenges
In 1992 Carol Evans (later Munro) joined PONCHO as Assistant Director, working with Judy Whetzel. Evans became Interim Director in 1995 and was Executive Director from 1996 to 2003, years of great transition for the organization. In addition to its annual gala, PONCHO added a separate art auction, a wine auction and a garage sale. The group had always worked with a small staff and a crew of dedicated volunteers but now procurement and fundraising had become a demanding year-round effort. By the 1990s Seattle's cultural scene had matured, with hundreds of art groups, and PONCHO's gala was no longer the city's biggest annual event. The group needed to find where the needs were greatest. It was during this period that computer technology began changing both record-keeping and the bidding process, and while this offered advancements, it also necessitated time-consuming training.
Despite these challenges, during Evans's years with the organization, PONCHO raised 12 million dollars, established an arts education initiative, developed the organization's first strategic plan, and began a PONCHO endowment. An Artist of the Year Award was begun in 2000, intended to be given yearly to a living Northwest artist. The award was created in honor of Morris and Joan Gottstein Alhadeff, who were active with PONCHO in its early years. In addition to recognition, each recipient received an honorarium of $5,000, underwritten in perpetuity by the Alhadeff family. The first recipient was painter Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000).
Closing Shop, Continuing the Mission
The 2008 economic recession severely impacted Seattle's arts organizations as well as school arts programs. Gordon Hamilton and Lorna Kneeland were two of PONCHO's last Executive Directors. In 2012, PONCHO launched the Youth Philanthropy Project (YPP) intended to educate young people about arts issues and grant-making; the Youth Program Quality Initiative, an out-of-school arts program, and the Saint Therese Catholic Academy Arts, in partnership with Arts Corps, collaborating with teachers to help develop student creativity and critical thinking.
On February 21, 2013, PONCHO issued a press release announcing that the organization would cease day-to-day operations on April 30 and become a legacy fund within the Seattle Foundation. PONCHO's 2013 president Stephen Kutz stated that the board had decided this was the best model for the next 50 years. After funding its outstanding obligations, PONCHO encouraged past donors, sponsors, patrons, and volunteers to contribute to the arts through the PONCHO Legacy Fund.
Following the group's closure, the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) began an oral-history project with PONCHO notables. In her interview, Carol Evans Munro summed up her years with the organization, saying:
"It was a blast. All the way through my years with PONCHO, it was the people-- from the board members to the volunteers -- and so many wonderful donors that believed so much in supporting the arts and the cause. You'd work with them year after year. It was impressive the amount of time people gave outside of their normal working life, yet this was something they all believed passionately in and spent a lot of time and energy to making the organization be successful" (Munro interview).