William R. Van Ornam
William (Bill) Van Ornam, pianist, classical and theater organist, arranger, and conductor is a versatile performer, filling many musical roles throughout a career that now spans six decades. He has taught; conducted choirs; been a concert artist in piano and organ; performed a wide variety of musical genres from classical to jazz; and played in small intimate groups, big band ensembles, and pit and concert orchestras.
Bill was born in San Bernardino and grew up in Hemet, California, the oldest of three children and one of two sons of William Lloyd and Helen Paysinger Van Ornam. He recently talked about a field trip he took while in elementary school and the effect it had on him:
When I was in grade school in Hemet, our teacher took us on a field trip to Riverside and we visited the Mission Inn, where I heard a pipe organ for the first time. I said to myself, “Someday I’m going to play a pipe organ!” Playing the Mission Inn organ would later be the first professional job I would have as an organist.
He had started lessons on piano at age six and at age fourteen, the beginning of his junior year at La Sierra Academy, began lessons on organ, studying with Edna Farnsworth, keyboard teacher at La Sierra Academy and College. High points in his music training at LSU in later years were the theory and music appreciation classes he took under Harold Hannum, whom Bill regarded as a good musician and teacher.
Following graduation from LSA at age sixteen, he enrolled at La Sierra College, where he completed two years during which he started working as an assistant organist at the Mission Inn, a position he held for three years. He also began giving private lessons.
In 1948 Van Ornam accepted a position at Campion Academy in Colorado, teaching music there for the next four years. During that time he continued music study at Colorado University in Boulder and married Audra Ching, a teacher at CA. They would have two children, William Robert (Bob) and Terrill (Terri) Rae.
At the end of his stay at CA, he was encouraged to go to Union College to teach. He later recalled how that came about and what happened next:
The president of Union College approached me about coming there to teach. When I pointed out that I had not completed my degree, he said “Well that’s fine; we can use you. Come any way and you can complete your degree and pay your way by teaching.” When I got there, they wanted to pay me 50c a lesson. My son had just been born, so I went to them and said, “I have a wife and child and that’s not enough.” They responded, “That’s the way it is.” I said “Well, I’m going to pack my bags and I’m gone!”
I went back to Colorado and taught private lessons and also went to work for the Baldwin organ company throughout the middle west, doing concert and television work for them for a couple of years. I then traveled with my wife and children back to California with the intent of completing my degree at La Sierra.
Just after he arrived in California, a teacher he had taught with at CA who was now teaching at Mountain View Academy near San Jose recommended him for a music position at that school. He accepted the invitation to teach at MVA and would be there for the next four years. During this time he completed a baccalaureate degree in music at San Jose State College, now University. He would later complete a master’s degree in music, also at SJSC.
Earlier while at CA, Van Ornam had organized a vocal octet which he initially named Eight Sharps and a Flat and then shortened to the Sharps for a similar yet expanded group at MVA. They presented both traditional choral music as well as arrangements of popular music. Both groups were very popular, the MVA group becoming a sought-after ensemble that gave frequent concerts and greatly enhanced the image of the school.
After leaving the academy, he remained in the San Jose area, taught lessons, and opened a School of Music and Fine Arts Center that included an art gallery and a sales room for Conn Organs and quality pianos. During this time he also made a record for Chapel Records, Evening Prayer, that featured organ improvisations and traditional works, assisted by Deane Allen who provided vocal obbligatos.
Van Ornam enjoyed the sound of the theater organ and music associated with it. He especially admired the work of Don Baker, organist at the Paramount Theater in New York City. After Van Ornam closed his store, he worked for the next six years as an organist at an upscale restaurant in San Jose. One evening, a patron came up and introduced himself:
He said, “I’m Don Baker,” and then complimented me on my playing. This was an exciting surprise for me since my first record album, an old 78 RPM set I had purchased as a kid, was of him playing the Paramount theater organ and he had become a hero of mine. He returned often and we became friends. He finally told me he was going back on the road to play even though he had retired earlier to San Jose.
In 1973 I also went on the road, playing in clubs. While living in California I had become interested in Science of Mind, a metaphysical set of beliefs, and had gone through a four-year program. I eventually earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy while living in Florida. I moved to Georgia, but because there was a recession, there were few playing opportunities. I called a pastor in my religion at Fort Lauderdale and asked about the organist situation in that area and he encouraged me to come. I moved there and he asked me to be the organist and teach metaphysics in his church.
The pastor lost his job and created a split in the church. I was asked to serve as a pastor by those who left that church since I had the credentials, and I pastored there for two years before accepting a similar position in Lakeland. At this time I reconnected with Don, who was playing in a pizza parlor in nearby Tampa, and filled in for him when he would go on the road. I also pastored and played in the Orlando area in the late seventies.
After about a year in Orlando, I grew weary of the politics in the church and after receiving a Christmas card from Don, who was now in Houston, Texas, I learned there was a need for organists there, and moved to that area, where for the next six years I played in a pizza parlor, until the economy slowed and many pipe organ pizza parlors went out of business. During this time I actually played for the first time on a Wurlitzer theater organ.
Van Ornam moved to Dallas, living there until 1985 and then moved to the Phoenix area by the end of 1980s, where he now resides. Throughout his career, he had taught piano and organ lessons and held church music positions, and he continued to do so in Arizona.
He also became more active as a performer and became involved in music activities in the Sun City area, conducting for five years a symphonic chorus that sang the Brahms and Faure requiems, Carmina Burana, the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, and other works with the Southwest Community Symphony.
He also formed a choir, The Voices of Van Ornam. This popular ensemble, which gave concerts to large and enthusiastic audiences, included members who had been professional and semi-professional singers. They sang in the region for the next seven years, performing over 150 choral works he had arranged of music from the big band era to the popular music of that time.
About five years ago, Van Ornam and Mark Austin, a Hollywood writer and stage designer, wrote, produced, and directed a musical, All Night Strut. It was very well received and was performed ten times locally.
In 2010, he directed a production of the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls and in the following year, one of Oklahoma. At the conclusion of the latter, he fully retired, officially ending a career that had spanned over sixty years.
Van Ornam recently wrote:
Joyce, my wife of fourteen years, and I are now retired and living in a beautiful home in a resort community near Phoenix, Arizona. Joyce, besides being an elementary school teacher is a superb vocalist as well as a pianist and organist. She has also starred in several revivals of Broadway musicals. I am eternally thankful that music has been so good to me and that I have been good for it.
Sources: Interview, letter, and emails, October 2013; Record Liner for Evening Prayer, Chapel Records, LP 5088, ST088, 1965; Other online sources.