Soft candlelight flickered on crystal-clear glasses of Uruguayan wine, temporarily neglected in the wake of the most anticipated sale of the night.
The auctioneer’s voice began to crescendo above the audible excitement of onlookers as bids for the necktie football coach Joe Paterno wore during his 400th win climbed to a final price of $10,200.
On Saturday night, more than 350 donors and supporters of public broadcasting gathered in the Alumni Ballroom of the Nittany Lion Inn for WPSU’s largest fundraiser of the year: the 19th Annual Connoisseur’s Dinner and Auction, featuring grill master Steven Raichlen of PBS’s “Primal Grill.”
Like many other PBS stations, WPSU has suffered severe budget cuts over the past two years, event coordinator Sue Bryant said. Now, more than ever, the station relies on annual fundraisers such as the dinner and auction to continue providing programming to 29 counties in central Pennsylvania.
This year’s event included both silent and live auctions throughout the night, which ultimately raised more than $56,000 for the public radio and television station.
More than 150 items ranging from jewelry to Penn State football tickets were sold in the silent auction, while just nine items were sold in the live auction. Members of the local community donated many of the items to WPSU’s auction, and host Patrick Smithreminded guests to do their parts by placing bids.
“Remember, not bidding generously may be suggesting that you want Big Bird to die,” said Smith, associate director of development and membership at WPSU. “No pressure.”
In recognition of their support for public broadcasting, guests were treated to a five-course meal planned by Raichlen and prepared by Tom Schilling, executive chef of the Nittany Lion Inn.
Each course was completed with a wine selection chosen by Robert Richards, a communications professor at Penn State who has served as the fundraiser’s sommelier for the past six years.
All of the dishes were selected from Raichlen’s latest book, “Planet Barbeque,” which includes not only recipes, but also passages outlining the history and diversity of the art of grilling, Raichlen said.
“I’ve dedicated the last 15 years of my life to studying this ancient and important art,” he said to those seated in the ballroom. “And for four years, I embarked on an international journey to learn and document how people grill and barbecue in other countries.”
His menu reflected the extent of his travels, featuring dishes like Serbian village hammers for the reception, Uruguayan filets mignon for the main course and Crema Catalane for dessert. Accompanying wines incorporated both international and local flavors, hailing from Chile to Pennsylvania.
The ballroom’s ambiance similarly interwove exotic and homey styles. While decorative hot air balloons transported guests to Raichlen’s sources of inspiration, blue and white picnic tablecloths brought them back to State College. The Penn State School of Music’s vocalists Kate Scally and Nathan Owen performed Italian opera pieces during the first few courses of the meal.
Yet apart from succeeding as an elegant dining experience, the event succeeded with regards to its original purpose — support for public broadcasting, Bryant said.
“We’re more than pleased,” she said. “From the feedback we received, we can tell that the guests loved the dinner and we’re happy the auction did so well.”