At 87, She Pulls Out All the Stops : They Name It and This Busy Organist Can Play It--by Ear

Times Staff Writer

"Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is one of the songs in a book in Mary Siggins Mendenhall's apartment.

Talk about inappropriate. She is probably the most active octogenarian this side of George Burns.

If that old rocking chair's got somebody, it isn't her. You take that old-fashioned walk--she takes her car and heads for one of her many weekly piano or organ performances.

A weekly church service, weddings, funerals, parties, the weekly meeting of a Westside service club--the 87-year-old Mendenhall takes life one key at a time.

Ever since she was a toddler in Colorado, she has had the gift of playing the organ by ear. She subsequently took piano lessons, and can read sheet music, but seldom needs to.

'Stump the Organist'

"I remember when the Sweet Adelines in Fresno had their annual show about five years ago," said her son, Jerry Siggins of the Madera County town of Coarsegold. "It was in an old theater that had a four-manual pipe organ, and my mother was at the keyboard for the entire two hours.

"During the intermission the attraction was 'Stump the Organist.' People in the audience yelled out what they wanted to hear, and she had to play it. There must have been 20 titles called out, and she didn't miss on any."

And nowadays Mendenhall doesn't miss many notes while playing the organ at the weekly service of the 20th Church of Christ Scientist in Venice, which she has done for three years.

Wednesday's for Optimists

Nor would anyone guess that it is an 87-year-old at the piano keyboard for the meeting every Wednesday of the Santa Monica Optimists in the Miramar. Whether it's "God Bless America" or "Happy Birthday to You," the touch is true.

At weddings inside St. John's Presbyterian Church in West Los Angeles, it is Mendenhall playing Mendelssohn.

"Many of the weddings are on Saturdays, and the regular church organist can't get away because he works for a department store," she explained in her second-story Culver City apartment. "I also do the rehearsals, usually the night before."

The great-grandmother (of 11) also occasionally supplements her Social Security benefit by being the organist at the Smith and Salsbury Funeral Home in Culver City ("Somebody has to do it"), and plays piano at the semi-monthly service conducted by her church, Culver City Presbyterian, in one of that city's convalescent homes.

Night for 'Irish Eyes'

Ah, but on the Saturday night before St. Patrick's Day, inside a certain house in Van Nuys, there is more than a little spirit to the strains of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." As friends assemble for the annual party at the home of daughter Maggie O'Fallon, the daughter does her part on the piano while her mother plays the organ.

"Around midnight," the daughter said, "Mom will say, 'Well, folks, I've got to go. Got a gig (church) in the morning.' "

O'Fallon, who sang with the Roger Wagner Chorale for 35 years and now is a counselor in the UCLA Design Department, occasionally has chorale members over to the house for singalongs. Guess who plays.

"I also can play piano or organ by ear, in addition to reading music," O'Fallon said. "But Mom! She can play anything asked for, in any key, by ear."

Grandma Moses of the ivories.

Home With a Pipe Organ

Mendenhall had one advantage. It isn't every house that comes complete with a theater pipe organ.

"Shortly after my late first husband, Jerry Siggins, and I moved here from Idaho, we bought a house on Sherbourne Drive," Mendenhall recalled. "He heard about an old organ gathering dust in the basement of a theater, paid the owner $100 and trucked it home.

"It was, however, 1 1/2 years before Jerry had it all put together. We had pipes in the closets, under the beds."

The son remembers that "I slept over pipes until I was about 12. We finally added a room just for the theater organ."

At the drop of a note, the octogenarian can practice state-of-the-art nostalgia:

"I was raised on a watermelon farm in Rocky Ford, Colo. My mother had an organ in our house. When I was 6, she took me to a woman's place for piano lessons. I had been used to trying the organ, and my touch was creepy-crawly--the piano keys wouldn't produce a strong sound.

A Rap on the Knuckles

"While I took the lessons, my mother went grocery shopping. One time just as she was walking in, I had been having troubles with the touch and the teacher was rapping me across the knuckles with a ruler. That ended the lessons with her."

The family subsequently moved to Twin Falls, Ida., where Mendenhall married, then went to Chicago for a summer to take formal organ lessons.

"My husband, an auto mechanic, and I moved to Los Angeles because there were more job opportunities for both of us. I played organ for a year during the silent film days at the Cameo Theatre on Broadway, then moved to the Arlington Theatre for seven years. It was six hours a day, seven days a week. . . . I thought I was set for life."

The best-laid plans of mice and organists. . . . Something called talkies came along. "I hung around a while for the organ music during the two-reel comedies and the travelogues, but the writing was on the wall for all of us."

The years sprinted past. Her husband died and she eventually married Charles Mendenhall, a trumpeter in the old Barnum and Bailey Circus. A year after he died in 1975, she moved to her present apartment.

'And Nothing Happened'

"I once had it figured out that I would live until about 65," she said. "Then the Social Security checks started arriving, but nothing else happened."

Mendenhall has no magic longevity secrets. "I get six or seven hours of sleep and eat a lot of fruit, but other than that, I just have frozen food when I'm home for dinner. Even if I don't have to, I make it a point to go up and down the stairs at least four times a day."

Her other exercise is for her fingers, playing scales on her piano 15 minutes a day. Atop the nearby television set (she is an avid Lakers fan) is a framed motto: "Friendship Is the Wine of Life."

And the friends figure to keep accumulating. Longevity runs in her family. Her grandfather lived to 92, and her great-grandfather--in Scotland--lived to 102.

It helps to choose good ancestors.

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