OVER THE past two decades television auctioneers have survived power blackouts, howling thunderstorms and merchandise shortages. It happens every spring during the annual 11-day rite of frenetic fund-raising known as the Great TV Auction.
"One year we were on the air when a power box on an electrical pole burned up," said J. Michael Collins, president and general manager of public broadcasting's Channel 17, Channel 23, WEBR-AM and WNED-FM.
"We were on the air with the auction for about an hour when, suddenly -- boom, all the power goes out," Collins said. "We're standing there in the dark, no power, with volunteers and workers running around.
"The guys from Niagara Mohawk came and it took about an hour to get the power back. We picked up right where we left off. The thing about the auction is, you've got to keep going. No matter what happens you can't stop; it's too important."
This year's 20th annual Great TV Auction will be telecast from Medaille College daily from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m., beginning Wednesday through Saturday, June 10, on Channel 17.
Collins said an estimated 2,000 volunteers will participate in this year's auction. Retail merchandise with an estimated value close to $1.4 million will be donated and the local public broadcasting stations hope to raise $600,000.
That money represents 6 percent of all revenue needed to run public broadcasting stations in Buffalo, according to Susan W. Hayes, vice president for development and publicity.
This year, as in the past, Ms. Hayes said about 30 percent of the merchandise has been donated at the start of the auction. Over the next 11 days, 70 percent more merchandise must come in.
It may sound like a crazy way to run an auction but it has yet to fail. "It's a little nerve-wracking, but it works," Ms. Hayes said. "Things are never calm, but somehow they always fall into place."
The weather can play havoc with the auction, including what appear to be annual spurts of heat waves and thunderstorms. "I don't know why, but every year at that time we seem to have at least one major thunderstorm," Ms. Hayes said. "And it gets so hot sometimes we're sweating to death out there. It takes a lot of stamina to make it through the auction."
Matthew N. Schiro, general chairman of the auction, is ready for the challenge. When asked -- in a word -- to describe his attitude about the rapidly approaching auction he replied: "Panic. We've got 11 days of air time and we need to find the merchandise to fill it."
Any merchandise with a $75 value is accepted. Those wishing to donate can contact the auction at 886-6304. In addition to helping public broadcasting, Schiro said the auction is a way to advertise to an audience estimated at 1 million viewers in Southern Ontario and Western New York.
Channel 4 will simulcast the auction from 8 to 9 p.m. Thursday, June 1. On Sunday, June 4, Channel 7 also will simulcast the action from 7 to 9 p.m. and Channel 2 will air it from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Local anchors Irv Weinstein, Rick Azar, Tom Jolls, Carol Jasen, Jacquie Walker, Van Miller, Ted Textor and various Channel 2 personalties are scheduled to appear as guest auctioneers during those simulcasts.
In addition to the celebrities, hundreds of volunteers work at running bids, moving tables of merchandise and answering phones.
"That's what this auction is all about really, getting involved with the community and supporting public broadcasting," Schiro said. "It's the spirit of the volunteers that makes this work."
No one can predict what items will be hot sellers to the viewing audience. "You never know, last year we sold hundreds of 'no-snore' pillows," said Schiro, Western New York Divisional President of Empire of America Federal Savings Bank's retail banking operations.
This year the list of merchandise includes a vacation to Disney World, a personal computer, a football autographed by Jim Kelly and boxes of glacier ice straight from Alaska.
Tony Buttino is executive producer of the auction and has been involved with every one over the past 20 years. He has first-hand knowledge of its sometimes zany, unpredictable nature.
Buttino tells of the time Goldie Gardner had introduced a new guest auctioneer. She happened to put her microphone on the auction table, which was fine, until the moving crew rolled the table away -- along with Goldie's mike.
Then there was the time a man who appeared slightly drunk wandered backstage. Buttino happened to be the only one around in those days before the security was beefed up. He was able to talk the fellow into stepping outside, instead of on camera.
Buttino's favorite auction tale, however, involves Dan Neaverth. Seems the local radio announcing legend was a guest auctioneer on Arts and Antiques night a few years ago.
Neaverth said the antique plate he held in his hand was worth hundreds of dollars. He asked the camera to come in for a close up and asked everyone in the studio to be quiet. Then, suddenly, Neaverth dropped the plate. It hit the floor and shattered.
The audience gasped and Danny looked nervous. Then he started laughing. The plate was fake, and the whole thing was a joke by Neaverth.
"That broke everybody up," Buttino said. "But that's the way it goes on the auction, you never know what will happen next."