CAMP Rehoboth’s Sundance is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, which is fitting because the event has its beginnings in another anniversary.
The first Sundance was held on CAMP founders Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald’s 10th anniversary. The couple had vacationed in Rehoboth for years, but by 1988, they had seen many friends die from AIDS. Wanting to do something, they created the first Sundance event, conceived as a dance party that would fundraise for AIDS-related charities.
“At that time, there was no cure for AIDS at all. There was almost no hope at that point. People were dying left and right. The whole community here was devastated losing so many friends,” Archibald said.
“We called it a Sundance. It was originally going to be outside.”
“It was supposed to be a pool party,” Elkins said. “That’s why we called it Sundance. We rented a dance floor and were going to have a DJ.”
Naturally, it rained the day of the event, and the party was moved to The Strand nightclub on Rehoboth Avenue, located in the area of Village By The Sea. Archibald said the first event raised about $6,000.
“Really, it was a private party. We just invited people to pay to come to our anniversary party. It became the first AIDS fundraiser of any size in Rehoboth,” Elkins said.
“The next year, we decided we might as well do it again,” Archibald said. “That year we added the auction part.”
It was Elkins’ idea to have a few auction items out in the lobby of The Strand, where the event was held in 1989. The auction brought in an extra $3,500, Elkins said.
Of the items put up for auction at Sundance, Elkins recalls two in particular. One was a banner from a Sotheby’s auction of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ estate. The banner had been thrown in the trash but was fished out and later put up for auction at Sundance. Elkins said that banner was bought for $6,000. The other item was a poster from the movie “Brokeback Mountain,” signed by the cast, purchased for $9,000.
By year three, Sundance had become a two-day event with the auction the first day and the dance party the second. Since then, the event has grown with sponsorship from local businesses. The event now raises money for CAMP Rehoboth and has moved from The Strand to the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center, and for the last two years, the Rehoboth Beach Mall. Sundance will move back to the convention center next year once City Hall renovations are complete. Overall, Elkins said Sundance has raised $2 million for CAMP Rehoboth.
Elkins handles much of the business and promotion work, while Archibald does most of the event planning.
“That first year, I look back, and the decorations were pretty simple. From there, they kept getting more and more elaborate. As we raised more money it became a bigger and bigger event. I kept designing more and more stuff,” Archibald said.
Two years after they began with Sundance, Elkins and Archibald started CAMP Rehoboth.
“We moved down here full time in 1990. There was a lot of tension at the time. So many gay people had been coming over the last decade, and the city was not dealing with it right. We wanted to start something. We started Letters that first year. It was really grassroots organizing in the community. Half the people thought we were crazy, maybe more than half,” Archibald said.
Looking back on 30 years, Archibald said the biggest takeaway for him is the dedication of the volunteers who make it happen.
“Who throws a party for 30 years?” he said. “Usually you pass things like this on. There are stories of people who work so hard they drop. They take so much pride in it.”
Archibald recalled one year when the florist and his team took all day to build two gigantic arrangements. The day the dance was supposed to take place, as soon as the doors opened, Archibald said, the floral arrangement collapsed.
“The florist, he looked at it and goes, ‘Oh my God, it collapsed under its own beauty.’”
Elkins said he is amazed by people who become sponsors, donate their time to put the event together and then put up thousands of dollars’ worth of items for the auction.
“They don’t take credit for it. It’s amazing,” he said.
By this point, Sundance has become so entrenched in the fabric of Rehoboth, that even Elkins admits to occasionally being caught off guard when people tell him “Happy anniversary.” He said Sundance has become a sort of benchmark for the end of the summer season, as the event is traditionally held on Labor Day weekend.
“It’s how we have the final say - this has been a great summer, and now let’s look forward to the shoulder season,” Elkins said.
This year’s event begins with the auction, 7 to 10 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 2. The dance will be held from 8 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 3 to 2 a.m., Monday, Sept. 4. This year’s theme, created by Archibald, is Solar NRG.
“It always has something to do with the sun or a rainbow for Murray,” Elkins said. “This is our last time in the mall so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Archibald said Sundance has endured because it is a time when everyone can come together.
“It’s become a tradition. As long as you put a lot into something, people will still come. The last few years I keep thinking, ‘Well, if we make it to 30 years, that would be a pretty good run.’ But I don’t see it ending.”
For more information about Sundance, visit www.camprehoboth.com.
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