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The Bottom Lines : Bach to Bach, Pomona Church Organist Marks Half a Century

March 07, 1985|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

L ong ago, before churches welcomed rock beats and taped music, before the advent of synthesizers and amplifiers, there was Frank Cummings.

For 50 years, Cummings has been minister of music at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Pomona. He has watched parishioners and fads come and go, but all the while one thing has endured: his love of the classics.

The congregation hears such greats as Bach, Mozart, Gounod, Dvorak, Haydn and Vaughan Williams as Cummings directs the choir and plays the pipe organ he calls "a terrifying giant."

"Frank is an institution, and very much loved," said associate minister Joe M. Hendrixson. "He's been a part of the church throughout the memory of almost everyone here. Because of him, the community recognizes this church for its musical program."

The small, spirited 80-year-old Cummings has announced that he will retire in June, leaving behind a vacancy that nobody knows yet how to fill, and memories that date back half a century.

"It was 1935 and I came in that door to apply for the job. I'm sure it's the same door--it's been painted and painted and painted," said Cummings, nodding toward his office entrance.

Pomona had a population of about 25,000 then, less than one-quarter of its current 105,000. It was an agricultural town surrounded by farms and orchards. In its center stood Pilgrim Congregational Church, a brick structure of Gothic design that was built at 600 N. Garey Ave. in 1912. The organ pipes were installed in 1918.

Cummings' memories of the church go back to the 1920s, when, as a student at the University of Redlands, he rode the old red electric cars to take private organ lessons at the church. Later he did graduate work at Columbia University and the Juilliard School in New York.

A man of lifetime commitments, Cummings has been married to his wife, Catherine, for 53 years. They have lived in the same house (where they reared four children) since 1946. Cummings was a music teacher at Pomona and Ganesha high schools for 29 years until his retirement in 1964.

Playing the organ, Cummings said, "is lifelong work. You have to study 20 years just to begin. I'm still learning."

Pilgrim Church has occasional services that feature a youth choir singing contemporary music accompanied by tapes with a rock beat, something Cummings dislikes "because I think it's fake."

"I pick things I believe in and I keep my ground," he said.

During his 50 years there were the worst of times--"That first year, during the Depression, was the hardest," Cummings said. "I thought then that the greatest thing to do was to sing Bach all the time. I haven't done that since. There's a lot of dull Bach, as well as some heavenly things.

"But then living here got better and better and better."

And there were the best of times--"Right after World War II, we were getting all these young people. We had 60 in the choir." In 1946 he led the choir in Verdi's Requiem, in what Cummings thinks was one of the greatest performances of his long career.

Now the choir has about 40 members. They will again sing the Requiem as a final tribute to Cummings on March 24. The 3:30 p.m. program will be at the church, with Cummings directing.

A spinal defect and arthritis have weakened Cummings' frame, but his hands still master "the terrifying giant," drawing powerful music from its four keyboards and two banks of pedals.

Besides weekly services, he has played for more weddings than he can estimate.

Atop the 1957 Moeller console are some folders with pictures of the Carpenters and Barbra Streisand, containing organ music for "We've Only Just Begun" and "Love Theme From a Star Is Born."

"Oh, yes, we play anything they ask for," Cummings said with a groan.

With a nasal, off-key whine he wailed the words to a popular love song, shuddering slightly.

"I used to try to convert these couples but I found it was a lost cause."

Brushing the sheet music aside, back Cummings went to his beloved, heavenly Bach, and he was smiling again.

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