2017 Pittsburg Entertainment & Arts Hall of Fame induction coming up
By Lou Fancher
The Pittsburg Entertainment & Arts Hall of Fame is getting downright crowded.
The 13 inductees in the fourth annual celebration Oct. 8 at the 1,880-seat Creative Arts Building include musicians, artists and performers — all of them bearing strong ties to local education. There are 10 graduates of Pittsburg High School, five honorees who worked within the Pittsburg Unified School District and an “outlier” who has taught hundreds of East County students at Los Medanos College.
This year’s honored individuals are musicians Nick Amador, Ramiro Amador, James Riso, Salvatore Mercurio, Silvester Henderson, Ann Custer, the late Sal Bruno, Jerry Lumbre, Chito Perez, artist Cortez Walker, teachers/performers Jack French and Bill Plummer and actor/director David Ward.
Selected by the all-volunteer Pittsburg Entertainment & Arts Hall of Fame (PEAHOF) board according to guidelines that place the spotlight on Pittsburg natives, residents or groups based in the city, inductees hold prominent places on international, national and local stages. Past recipients include jazz composer and musician Pete Escovedo, comedian Johnny Steele, jazz pianist Joe Castro, guitarist Terrence Brewer, vocalist Faye Carol and more.
It says something about a city when it boasts an abundance of talent. It says something profound when it includes in that circle people who have not only received public applause and critical acclaim but have also quietly devoted decades of service to their hometown community and the next generation of artists and performers — people like educator, organist and choir director Ann Custer.
Moving in 1961 to Pittsburg from her childhood home in Salem, Oregon, the now-81-year-old musician worked as a preschool and adult education teacher. That and 13 years as a kindergarten teacher at Los Medanos Elementary school coincided with more than 50 years playing the organ and leading choirs and the music ministry at Community Presbyterian Church of Pittsburg. Along the way, Custer found time to direct the Singing Seniors. She continues to play the organ at East County Shared Ministry, a place of worship shared by merged congregations from Community Presbyterian and First Congregational Church of Antioch. The induction, Custer says, is nearly overwhelming.
“To be included is humbling. I’m not a professional musician and have never claimed to be one. I’ve just been able to share the talent I have with a lot of people.”
In truth, it’s impossible to calculate the exact number of people whose lives Custer has blessed. Half a century in classrooms, churches and choir rehearsal rooms means Custer not only influenced Pittsburg but had a remarkable vantage point for observation.
“What I wish is that people could know Pittsburg as it is. It was once a wild, open and woolly town. Now our students have achieved amazing things. I see a lot of growth due to the college programs.”
One of the pluses of living in one place for years is watching former students grow up to become successful adults, she says. Board president Ralph Ramirez can claim similar pleasures. Born in 1931 and having lived all except one of his 86 years in Pittsburg — even then it was a simple hop to Antioch and back because he missed his hometown — Ramirez recalls traveling as a member of The Felix Urbina Latin Band.
“We played most weekends within an 80-mile radius of Pittsburg in the early ’50s. The field workers would get cleaned up to come see us. World War II veterans back after the war, they’d follow us around just to hear old-time Latin jazz music they missed and loved.”
Ramirez says he and the hardworking volunteers who organize and present the Hall of Fame event have one primary goal: “The thing in our minds is to do our best with pleasing people with selecting who should be honored,” he says. “These people inducted, a lot of their (success) has to do with the guidance they had at school and the leadership of our teachers. The reputation of our schools has changed, and people see Pittsburg rising from an industrial city into a place that has much to offer. Downtown growth, City Council leadership, the landscape — it far exceeds past expectations.”
2017 musician inductee Silvester Henderson, a full-time professor of Choral Activities and Emeritus Chair of the Music Department at Los Medanos College, is recognized especially for his contributions to gospel music. He flips the mirror to highlight his students and the city.
“I owe all my national achievements to my Los Medanos College choral and vocal students.”
PIttsburg, he adds, is the world’s best-kept secret. “Living and working in Pittsburg, is like a slice of Italy, Spain and Africa all in one! A place of family, fun, with a spirit of cultural unity.”
Asked if she might select a favorite piece of music for the induction ceremony, Custer is at first stymied. Eventually, she says, “There are so many marvelous choral pieces, it’s hard. I suppose something by Brad Ellingboe. Anyone in my choirs can tell you that I’d pick him. He’s contemporary with wonderful harmonies and a traditional style.”
The same words might be adapted to describe Pittsburg: a contemporary city connecting its past, present and future with harmony and tradition.