Mr. Chatterbox - January 2009

By Robert Plunket Photography by Cliff Roles January 1, 2009

I wonder how many of you realize that I write an entirely different column for Sarasota Magazine in addition to this one. I’m referring to my Social Diary, which appears bi-weekly on our Web site, In it I recount all the wonderful social events I attend, complete with pictures I often take myself. It’s fun and light-hearted—a welcome change from this mishmash, in which I generally push schemes that I have a financial interest in or scold public figures or gush over Matt Orr.


What’s it like, this Social Diary? Well, I thought I’d give you a little sample. It’s not all black-tie galas. In fact, I try to “spread the wealth” and cover all the bases, and in this town that means covering the season in Pinecraft, the Amish part of town.


This year it’s been very exciting. Everybody’s down from up North. You can see the bicycles piled up at the corner of Tuttle and Bahia Vista, where the Amish—and Mennonite—kids leave them when they take the bus out to the beach. Pinecraft Park is packed with shuffleboarders, and the little streets with the tiny bungalows that date back to the 1920s are full of old folks pedaling around on adult trikes.


As long as I’ve lived near Pinecraft, I’ve been unaware of the winter’s great social event, which is the big benefit auction. Every January the leading businessmen of the community organize a daylong auction to support various charities, and this year it was decided that all the proceeds would go to Haitian relief.


The event is open to the public, but the vast majority of attendees are Amish and Mennonite. Everybody shows up. There were 4,000 people there, and most were dressed in traditional garb. As a reminder of our town’s A/M presence and sheer size, there’s nothing like it.


There were three big tents set up at the fairgrounds. The biggest had the furniture and quilt auction. I must say I’ve never seen an auction audience sit there so attentively and politely for so long. They were riveted to each coverlet and cedar chest that came up for bid. But then, I’ve never seen an auction audience stand up and sing a hymn as a sort of seventh-inning stretch, either. It was To God Be the Glory, and they all knew it by heart.


Auctions are crucial to the way the Amish and Mennonites buy and sell things, so there was an excitement that many outsiders might miss. It was almost like a day at the most wonderful mall. The men crowded into the tool tent and were bidding like crazy, and there was even a silent auction, although with items one never saw at the Orchid Ball or Going for the Gold: a round-trip bus ticket to Indiana, 10 yards of fill dirt, two hours of bush hog service.


The Amish and Mennonites lead lives of great self-discipline, but there is one area where they indulge themselves, and that is food. There were two food tents—one to buy it in and one to eat it in—and they were both packed. Among the offerings were all sorts of chicken dinners (grilled and baked), plus barbecue, hamburgers, pretzels, baked goods, a big table of pie slices, and as the piece de résistance, homemade ice cream, which they made right in the tent with a little John Deere motor.


This year’s auction raised about $400,000, which puts it in the big league of local charity events. Put it on your calendar for next year.


Just to show you the depth and breadth of Sarasota social life, that very evening, as they took down the tents at the fairgrounds, another group was putting the finishing touches on Big Mama’s Juke Joint, down in the Rosemary District, to benefit the Florida Winefest. There were no Amish at this event, just the usual reprobates, thrill seekers, drag queens and beautiful losers who swarm to anything that Matt Orr organizes.


The gimmick was to attract young people, and that certainly worked. The crowd was so young that Sally Schule and Chris and Ken Pfahler—all celebrating their birthdays and usually among the youngest at any Sarasota party—seemed positively resplendent in their maturity. For a moment I thought they were chaperones. How young and hip was it? I counted four of Sarasota Magazine’s Hottest Bachelors, whom you’ll see elsewhere in this issue. And you should have seen Sandy Loevner, the Winefest Big Mama. She stood by the front door, counting the take and clucking like a contented mother hen.


Kat Williams, who many of you remember from her gig at last year’s Asolo gala, sang all night, just like at a real speakeasy. She was occasionally spelled by Beneva Fruitville and Felicity, who performed numbers from Chicago. I spent an hour or so playing Texas Hold ’Em with Anne Chauvet and Babette Bach. Anne fronted me some chips, which she promptly lost. Oh, well. “It’s for the children!” as Ms. Fruitville kept reminding us.


The poor children? Or the ones crowding the bar? At any rate, as parties go it was like the turning of a page. Something new and different, the most stylish event of the season so far.

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