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Organist: An Anonymous Player in an Unforgotten Hour

June 12, 1986|BILL MANSON

The church is hushed. The limos are outside. The pre-service melodies have stopped. The moment of moments is about to arrive. Someone is standing waiting to give the signal to start the procession.

But it's not just the silk-clad guests and gold-robed priest who are holding their breaths. Up a tortuous curl of stairs, sitting, hands poised, at the organ, is a spear carrier from the opera, a soldier, a parole officer from the New Mexico State Penitentiary, a social worker, a seminarian and an organist, all about to hit the keys with "Here Comes the Bride."

They are all William R. Peck, one of those quiet adventurers through life, who seems to always get the interesting rolls of the dice. He has been all of those things and still is some of them. The last thing he expected to be of all his lives was organist at a church.

He's familiar with the Sicilian way of doing things. Of course, here, at the wedding, they're mixed in with the Anglo traditions. "It's Wagner, Schubert and Mendelssohn, as always. I haven't been at a wedding when we didn't have those three guys with us."

Suddenly, a hand waves frantically from below. Peck, the only one in the church dressed casually in shirt and slacks--he's never going to be seen--turns up the volume and hits the keys.

"Here goes 'Lohengrin': Wagner would turn in his grave if he knew what he was most famous for." "Here Comes the Bride" blasts out on the Wurlitzer, as, below, Sallie Scardina walks slowly up the aisle on her father's arm.

This is the sixth bride who has come up the aisle for Peck this year. But even among Italian weddings, this is a grander affair than most. This is the time he wishes he had an organ to match the occasion.

But he's not alone in the loft. Catherine de los Rios, the church's regular singer at weddings, sits next to him, waiting to sing some emotion into the service. The two have worked together so much, they hardly need say a thing. They no longer need to rehearse. Just shuffle the papers of their music with one word to make sure they're both searching for the same song.

Photographer John Gorman comes wobbling up the spiral stairs with cups of water. His wife and assistant, Betts, remembers those steps well, at Sallie's sister Joanne's wedding five years ago. Betts was in a rush and fell all the way down those stairs.

Now she sits tight. It's dead for her until the ceremony is over. That's when work will start up all over again. So while Sallie and Andy Tutino are passing through one of the great moments of the life, here Betts sits, feet up, reading "Battlefield Earth" by L. Ron Hubbard. Escaping for a moment the stresses of what's going to be a 16-hour day.

From up here, it's hard to hear all that's going on. But De los Rios knows the procedure intimately. She's standing up now, next to Peck, shifting pages of music to a book with "Schubert" written large across the front. Down below, the couple are taking their vows, facing each other, surrounded by 10 silver maids and 10 black-suited groomsmen. Peck looks up at the singer with a "stand-by" glance.

Now they're married. And as Sallie takes white roses to present to the statue of the Virgin Mary, the kneelers below rumble, a train whistle blows, and John and Betts Gorman get up, gather their cameras and lights, spray their mouths with breath spray and go downstairs.

Peck and De los Rios launch into Schubert's song, the one they play in 99 out of 100 weddings, Catholic or not, "Ave Maria."

To Peck, this wedding is like falling off a log. The operation has all the tension of a football exhibition match. While the priest prepares for Communion, Peck opens "Everybody's Favorite Organ Pieces" at "Christians Let Us Love One Another," nods to De los Rios and plays, hardly looking at the music before him.

For Peck, coming here at all was kind of a funny thing. Except for maybe in the Crystal Cathedral, these days nobody can afford to be a full-time organist. Two hundred dollars a month buys this church an organist to play for two Masses every Sunday, a weekly Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Tuesday nights and a weekly choir practice nine months of the year.

"Weddings are cream on the top. I get about $50 a pop. At 51 years old, it's not exactly a fortune, but I enjoy it."

At 17, he was supposed to become a priest. But he left the seminary. At 21, he was supposed to become a teacher. But that didn't work out. He ended up as a parole officer, living inside the New Mexico State Penitentiary, behind five electrified-grill gates.

"I used to look down at the prisoners playing netball, jogging, lying in the sun. At least they had an exercise yard. They had a better deal than I did."

He was useful to the Army, too. After he was drafted they heard he could play church music. He spent his time playing in the 2nd Armored Division Catholic Chapel at Fort Hood, Tex.

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