‘Pomona A to Z’: O is for Organ

[My dad is a sometime church organist and we had an organ in our house growing up (not that I do anything with music other than appreciate it). With this background, O was obvious. The organ featured below has since been rebuilt and reportedly sounds better than ever. This column was originally published Nov. 28, 2004.]

‘A to Z’ pilgrimage keys in on old organ

By my oath! Today the alphabet obliges us to orate upon the letter O in “Pomona A to Z,” our omnium-gatherum of Pomona’s ostentatious, and occasionally outre, offerings.

To which outstanding O shall we pay obeisance? Overlooking others, here are two contenders:

* Opera Garage, the opera house at Fourth and Thomas that later housed the valley’s first Cadillac dealership. Now the building has stores below and artists’ studios above. Its car-sized elevator still works, by the way.

* Orange crate labels, 4,000 of which are in the collection of the Pomona Public Library. Access many of them online at http://content.ci.pomona.ca.us/databases.html

Obdurately, I’ve chosen another O. Observe as we compose an ode to Pomona’s mightiest O: the organ at Pilgrim Congregational Church.

This baby is 102 years old and has so many pipes, ranks and stops that by comparison, the Phantom of the Opera’s organ sounds like a Wurlitzer.

Pilgrim Church is pretty stately itself. It’s the red-brick, Gothic-style church at Garey Avenue and Pearl Street that dates to 1912 and covers a square block.

To demonstrate the organ’s range for me one weekday afternoon, senior organist Mary Ferguson flipped the switches to set it humming to life.

The organ is housed near the altar but sunken behind a wooden screen so that Ferguson isn’t visible from the pews.

Nestled behind the four-level keyboard, knobbed panels on either side, Ferguson resembled a pilot in a cockpit.

As she launched into “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow,” the organ took off, rumbling and soaring.

“There’s a lot of power there when you’ve got all that sound going,” Ferguson said later.

Next she played part of a delicate Gregorian chant to show that the organ, like Sears, has a softer side.

Senior organist since 1986, Ferguson is called upon to play each Sunday and at weddings, funerals and church events.

Some couples planning weddings insist they don’t want an organ, a sentiment Ferguson doesn’t understand.

“They must think of an electric organ or even relate them to funeral homes,” Ferguson said. “But you don’t want to come into a church and not have an organ.”

No one’s come into Pilgrim Congregational in more than a century and not had an organ.

The church, founded in 1887, formed a “pipe organ club” in the 1890s to raise money. Its organ was ordered from Murray Harris Organ Builders of L.A. in a paired purchase with the local Methodist Church
to bring down the price on two.

Pilgrim’s organ debuted on March 4, 1902, and has been in use ever since. The Methodists’ organ is history.

Marjorie Ough, the first organist, was still at the keyboards in 1942 at the organ’s 40th anniversary, when expansions had more than doubled the original 780 pipes to 1,906.

When Japan surrendered, ending World War II, a special V-J Day service included a fitting organ prelude: Grieg’s “Triumphal March.”

Looming large in Pilgrim’s history is Frank Cummings, its minister of music for a half-century. He presided over upgrades that brought the organ to its present size.

Ferguson learned the ropes under Cummings, who had been her music teacher at Pomona High and who retired from the church in 1985. He set high standards, ones she’s still mindful of.

The 71-year-old makes the drive from Glendora at least three times a week to practice for Sunday’s service, which typically has nine pieces of music.

“This congregation is used to good music, and appreciates it,” Ferguson said.

That appreciation is quiet, this being church. But at a 2002 service to mark her 50 years of music involvement, Ferguson got, quite appropriately for today’s theme, a standing O.

The organ now has 3,245 pipes, from the 16-foot monsters visible behind the altar to ones as small as a cigarette, plus 56 ranks and 72 stops.

Fund-raising is under way for a $238,000 rebuilding of the organ to restore its full sound. About 100 notes are dead and others are out of tune. Ferguson plays around them.

Even limping, the organ is like an orchestra, all in one instrument. It can mimic chimes, trumpets, a harp, strings and flutes. (No, there’s no setting for rumba or cha-cha-cha.)

“It’s a very versatile instrument,” Ferguson said.

I decided not to ask her to play “Louie Louie.”

(David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, ostensibly.)

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