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Their Ministry Is Keeping You Awake in the Seat : Furniture: It’s not a glamorous business, but with comfort as the goal, pew peddlers are always on the lookout for the next frontier in sanctuary seating.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the quirky world of pew sales, companies pose their products in front of Yosemite Falls, engage in church-seat espionage and offer tubs of corned beef to island chieftains.

They also conduct important pew research on such topics as the relation between bench comfort and sermon attention spans--and, in the eternal quest for pew perfection, they pioneer such technical breakthroughs as the talking pew and the reversible chair.

“The average person doesn’t think about where pews come from,” says Durand Overholtzer, whose Modesto-based church furniture company is one of the giants of pewdom. “But it’s a real competitive (and) . . . creative business.”

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Overholtzer, who traces his woodworking ancestry back 1,000 years to a village near Zurich, runs a sprawling factory where many of the chairs in the lobby and offices are pews. In his own office, next to a bookcase filled with religious works and a biography of Lee Iaccoca, is the talking pew of Las Vegas. (The seat, which features hidden wiring and loudspeakers, was custom-built for a Greek Orthodox congregation worried about sanctuary acoustics.)

It’s a considerable leap from the church accommodations of the past. Until the Middle Ages, pews didn’t even exist. People stood, wandered around, chatted and even brought in pets, says historian Colleen McDannell of the University of Utah. It wasn’t until about the 13th Century, in Northern Europe, that the first pews--made of stone or wood--are believed to have appeared.

By the 1700s, church seats had evolved into elaborate private booths--owned or rented by families--and were such status symbols that people handed them down in wills and fought over them in lawsuits. Pew rental fees brought in so much money that churches didn’t even introduce collection plates until the late 1800s, McDannell says.

From there, pews developed into the stretched-out benches familiar today. But innovations continued. In 1946, an Idaho company that originally built World War II bomb crates, whiskey bars and high school chemistry labs unveiled what it claims was the world’s first upholstered, spring-cushion pew.

“We’d been building restaurant booth seats,” says Mike Stoneman, president of what eventually became Marshall Church Furniture Co. “We just made them longer.”

Founder Jack Marshall was so certain he had stumbled onto the next frontier in sanctuary seating that he undertook a five-year study of the link between pew comfort and audience attentiveness.

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He got the idea after a traveling preacher remarked that the same sermon that rocked the house in some churches put people to sleep in others.

“We checked the pews,” Stoneman says. “And darned if it didn’t boil down to seating. . . . The more comfortable the pew, the more attentive the audience. It might seem like the opposite would be true, but if you sit on a hard bench, after a few minutes you lose your train of thought with the speaker because you’re thinking about your butt.”

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It took a reform-minded pontiff, however, to bring padded pews to prominence.

In a little-known footnote to Catholic Church history, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (a.k.a. Pope John XXIII) inadvertently ignited a pew revolution when he convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

The council’s subsequent decision to revamp Catholic liturgy and worship space led many parishes to begin upholstering their seating, relax the vertical slant of pew backs and replace the traditional wooden bench with theater-style chairs, says Frank Ulrich, marketing manager for Ohio-based Sauder Manufacturing Co., one of the two dominant forces (along with Overholtzer) in the pew universe.

Protestants soon followed, he says, and sitting down on Sunday has never been the same. Today, there are paisley pews, tapestry pews, even pews that look and feel more like couches.

“Churches are competing for people on Sunday,” Ulrich told one magazine. “(They’re) competing with La-Z-Boy recliners and golf carts at the country club.”

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Indeed, the once ubiquitous all-wood bench has fallen so far from grace that it now accounts for just a handful of every 100 new pew orders nationwide. Overholtzer even stopped making wooden pews from 1970 to 1985 and only resumed small-scale production in an attempt to crack the more tradition-bound New England church market. (A number of Catholic churches have also hung onto the non-upholstered look, but that could change as the benches come to the end of their 25- to 50-year life expectancy, industry officials say.)

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In the meantime, the search for space-age seating continues. Among the most recent inventions is Overholtzer’s reversible pew, built for a Catholic church in Florida that wanted to have seats in a side chapel face one direction for normal use and the opposite direction for when the main church overflowed.

Other manufacturers--there are about 50 nationwide--have discovered different niches.

In Azusa, just down the street from a brewery, is L.A.’s pew company to the stars, Cardinal Church Furniture. Run by a cowboy boot-clad pew heir who ropes steer in his spare time, Cardinal rents church seats to soap operas and sitcoms.

All those funerals on “Days of Our Lives” and “General Hospital” are “going to pay for my daughter’s college education,” says company president Johnny Lambrecht, whose first name is emblazoned on his belt in silver.

Lambrecht, who grew up helping his father make and install sanctuary seating (he also used to christen the first pews he assembled for any church with a ceremonial wad of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of the seat), sells his product to courthouses and funeral parlors, too.

To consummate a deal, he and his brother load sample seats aboard a single-engine plane and fly them to potential customers. Or they just haul out the corned beef.

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On a recent sales expedition to American Samoa, for example, Cardinal officials were advised to bring a five-gallon tub of meat to an island chief whose community was interested in pews for its jungle church. (It worked.)

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Other pew companies also have offbeat sales techniques.

Overholtzer Church Furniture, for instance, hands out brochures depicting pews at Yosemite, in gardens and on the beach at sunset. Marshall, on the other hand, has taken its entire product line to sound labs to see how music and noise bounce off the wood and fabric. For years, it even touted a special acoustic panel built into every seat.

Some pew peddlers, however, resort to more underhanded tactics.

“It’s not a very ethical business to be in,” Marshall’s Stoneman says. “I’ve seen a lot of cutthroat, down-and-dirty (methods).”

Overholtzer, for example, has traced suspicious inquiries for product information to spies from a rival company. And Marshall’s competitors, Stoneman says, have tried to undermine its credibility with conservative evangelical customers by falsely suggesting that the company is owned by Mormons (they’re actually Methodist).

In spite of such intrigue, it’s still not a glamorous business, says Lambrecht: “Churches are like restaurants. The pastor is the chef, and we’re like the guys who make the booths and tables. Nobody comes to a restaurant for the booths and tables.”

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