AUBURN — As the West Auburn Congregational Church prepared for it’s annual Christmas Pageant, Charlie Marshall prepared his “corner” of the church for another performance in his 70 years of service as the church organist.
One parishioner called him the “owner of the place.” Marshall was quick to point skyward and make clear “He” is the owner. Still, manning the same bench for 70 years should at least make Marshall a branch manager.
“You have to get the motor running,” Marshall said as he fired up the organ in front of the church. It’s the second instrument he has used in his tenure as Minister of Music.
As the church filled up with performers and parishioners, the Rev. John Williams joked with a small boy dressed as a cow for the living nativity.
“My first service here was in June of 1945,” Marshall said. The 86-year-old Marshall said he was only 17 years old when he started. He made attempts to retire but the church said otherwise.
Marshall said he began playing piano at age five and took lessons for the next ten years.
Marshall said his abrupt transition from piano to organ came in 1945 when a woman from the church wanted the Edward Little High School chorus to come and lead a vespers service.
The woman found the old piano inadequate for the chorus, so she went out and purchased a Hammond organ for the church.
“When I found out from Don Gay, who was the choral director for EL,” Marshall said, “I said, I’ve never played the organ before — I can’t do it.” With some prodding from the chorus director, Marshall relented.
When asked about how he spent 70 years taking direction that sometimes goes astray of the best laid plans for a service, he said he takes it all in stride.
“I learned a long time ago from my high school music director,” Marshall said, “you don’t lead, you follow.”
Marshall played selected Christmas songs as living pieces of the manger were constructed between readings from the Christmas story. Two little boys dressed as a camel and a donkey chased each other around the corners in pews — apparently getting into character.
The men playing the wise men were each assigned a verse as they came forward for “We Three Kings.” Each time following the chorus, Marshall would stop, hold a note and look to the wise men, prompting them to sing.
At the end of the pageant, Marshall played an interlude while congregants formed a circle, dimmed the lights and lit candles before singing a verse of “Silent Night.”
Marshall, who also had separate, twenty-year careers in retail and banking, said although the church goes on a brief hiatus in the summer, he still provides his talents for other churches.
Though a lifetime of music, Marshall said he can’t possibly choose a favorite hymn.
“They’re all favorites of mine,” he said. As such, Marshall said he has no problem going “off script” in a service, as he has memorized them all.
Marshall’s wife of 60 years, June, said she, too, led a musical life but when she settled down with her husband, she gladly quit. She said their children, Bruce and Brenda, as well as their respective families, also are musically inclined.
June said the couple met at a different church through the youth group when she came up to study to become a nurse.
“He thought he was ready to get married,” she said but teenage June had other ideas. “I’m going to do my nurses training; I’m going to work as a nurse, so forget it.”
“So, we waited nine years,” June said. She spent the next 54 years as a nurse.
At one time, Marshall had to stagger playing for three churches — West Auburn Congregational Church, the Advent Christian Church in Auburn as well as Calvary Methodist in Lewiston, the latter church for some 35 years.
In celebration of Marshall’s 70 years of service, friends and family convinced him to create a CD of church hymns played on piano. Marshall will release the collection of 13 songs at a party at the church on Jan. 18.