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Column: Community orchestra not new to Worthington

WORTHINGTON -- The first guitar music I ever knew came with cowboy movies, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers at the Grand Theater. "I'm back in the saddle again, out where a friend is a friend ..."

Cowboy shows were rated B-movies. I heard people say guitars were B-instruments.

Very big change.

Elvis Presley's first single was, "Heartbreak Hotel." 1956. Elvis quickly, easily erased the image of B-tars. Four years along this hot trail, George Harrison and John Lennon came on stage playing The Beatles' guitars. Oh my. The guitar, like Elvis, became King.

Les Paul. Then fast forward: "Sweet Caroline," Neil Diamond. "Gentle on My Mind," Glen Campbell. Amplified/acoustical guitars. There never since has never been a day without guitars.

Pianos, the old entertainment standbys, went into eclipse with Liberace, Dudley Little and Victor Borge.

I sometimes sense (what do I know?) guitar popularity may be wobbling a bit after six decades of lordship. There are 10 million guitarists now, kids and old guys. Very many women. The guitar's stud image is faded. Music arenas may come to feature a return of assorted maestros, as Benny Goodman and his clarinet; Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and their slide trombones; Harry James and his trumpet.

Perhaps more likely, violins, the longest-running popular favorites, may return from the wings. Violins/fiddles. Violinists and fiddlers. Philharmonic orchestras and barn dances. Italy's Stradivari family was not making violins only for ensembles but (even more) for virtuoso entertainers. You sometimes sense Celtic Woman may revive violin popularity by themselves.

Violins came to mind in part as I read the Daily Globe last week. An $11,000 grant has been approved. Melanie Loy, Beth Habicht, Karen Pfeifer, Sue Simonson -- the Great Plains String Quartet -- will be expanded into a Worthington Area Community Orchestra. Violins, plus.

The news story served to recall a summer morning when I climbed to the second floor of a house on Fifth Avenue that doesn't exist any longer and talked with Alice Pontow, who then was living in an apartment and who taught piano at Worthington and through the region for 66 years. Alice, who was near 90, told about a community orchestra from last mid-century that she helped to create.

"I had an orchestra myself for a few years," Alice remembered. "That was when I was living in the house on Sixth Avenue."

"Mr. Sampson from Round Lake played the violin. He had been coming up to Worthington; I had been helping him with timing and a few touches like that.

"Well then there got to be six or seven of us. I played the piano. H.L. Refsell played the violin; he lived just down the block. There was H.T. Adams. Mrs. Tom Voss. Clarence Summers played saxophone. And Martin Anderson -- I'm not sure if I've named them all.

"We had a good time. We would play for one-and-a-half or two hours. Sometimes we played two or three times a week. We played popular music, and classical.

"One year we were in the Turkey Day parade.

"They were having a home talent show at Harris, Iowa. We went down there, and we played. That was fun.

"Well, then they announced the winner. They had a kitchen band, and the kitchen band won first-place.

"I was putting on my coat, and we were ready to go when I heard them say:

'Alice's Orchestra of Worthington, second prize. Alice's Orchestra of Worthington.'

"We went back and we had an oyster supper at Martin Anderson's."

It was an earlier-day version of a Worthington Area Community Orchestra.

There no doubt are many hymn writers across our area. Alice was the only one I ever knew. On the morning I talked with her, everything in her apartment was sold or packed. She was moving the next morning to The Atrium. The piano was gone. The old organ was gone. Alice still had an Acrosonic piano.

She sat on a folding chair and played one of her hymns for me:

Holy Spirit fill me now, Touch me, heal me, bless somehow. Cleanse and keep me free from all sin, Make me pure and whole again.


Holy Spirit fill me now, Humbly at thy feet I bow, Let thy healing power begin. Holy Spirit enter in.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.