Monday, July 15, 2002
Mary Thornton House, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge
Pasadena Supervising Judge Brings Down the House With Orchestra
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
To the unlikely hodgepodge of teachers, housewives, dentists and doctors, a housepainter, and a few lawyers that make up the Pasadena Community Orchestra, she’s just Mary.
It’s hard to see the woman dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt as Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Thornton House, her fellow musicians say. But while she may hand out justice during the day, on Wednesday nights she’s just there to play music.
It may not be a fancy organization filled with the glitz and glamour of a big time production, but the orchestra, which runs its $22,000 outfit entirely on donations, is exactly where House wants to play her viola.
“It’s not uncommon to find a dollar or a fifty-cent piece in the donation thing,” House, the orchestra’s president, says. “We count pennies. It’s the kind of organization we are and it’s the kind of organization we want to be.”
The nearly 60-member group performs five concerts a year—all free—as a way of bringing classical music to people in a relaxed atmosphere. The group has a devoted senior citizen following and orchestra members make arrangements for some of their fans to be bused in to attend.
House’s love for classical music is contagious—her court reporter attends almost every concert—and one juror was so impressed by the performance several orchestra members gave during Juror Appreciation Week at the Pasadena Courthouse, where House serves as supervising judge, she called the court to find out when her next concert was.
True to form, House called the juror back herself.
While orchestra members tend to lose their outside world identities when they play—no one really talks about work—House did have an unwanted brush with celebrity status when orchestra music director Wayne Reinecke made the announcement in Jan. 1996 that House, an assistant city attorney, had been appointed a municipal court judge by then-Gov. Pete Wilson.
The musicians remained eerily quiet until House, feeling the uneasiness in the room, burst out, “I still play out of tune.”
Everyone laughed and just like that she went back to being just Mary.
House was later elected assistant presiding judge of Pasadena Unified Courts and was elevated to the Superior Court with court unification in 2000.
House first made her way onto the music scene as a five-year-old in Tennessee after throwing a teary-eyed tantrum because her older sister was taking piano lessons and she couldn’t.
“By the end of the year I was playing better than my sister,” House recalls.
Her sister no longer plays the piano.
When her family moved to Dallas, House had the opportunity to take free string instrument lessons through her school, and she jumped at the chance.
She didn’t exactly know what a viola was, but it seemed like the most logical choice at the time.
“I knew I didn’t want to play the violin and the cello seemed like too much trouble to lug around so I said I wanted to play the viola,” House recalls.
The decision, which caused her music teacher to hug her and exclaim “oh, a viola player,” may not have seemed earth shattering at the time, but it touched off a lifelong love affair with the instrument.
“I’m not a great musician,” House says. “I just enjoy doing it. It’s probably my version of golf.”
Her devotion led her to beg her parents to buy her a viola of her own when she was 14, a decision they made knowing it would mean going without other things.
“My mother has always been very practical,” House says. “She asked me, ‘If we buy this instrument are you going to stick with it?’”
Years later, she’s still sticking with it, despite all the additional responsibilities she’s picked up since she was 14.
When her high school music teacher refused to let her students play “popular music,” House and a few friends got together one night a week and played to their heart’s content. They soon took their show on the road, making the rounds of convalescent homes and hospitals.
“My mother told me we made it big when we played Leisure World,” House said.
House even refused to let law school get in the way of her music, balancing classes with playing with the University of San Diego Orchestra. And when she found out about the Pasadena Community Orchestra, which started out as an ongoing class at Pasadena Community College, she signed up.
Spare time is in short supply for the supervising judge of five of the Los Angeles Superior Court’s courthouses in the San Gabriel Valley and Foothill areas, but she always manages to find time for her music. Or at least she tries.
“Theoretically 30-45 minutes [of practice] a day, but that’s just theory as far as I’m concerned,” House joked.
In addition to her work with the Superior Court, House also spends countless hours promoting the orchestra, addressing the audience at concerts and writing press releases to get the word out about the organization.
“She is a wonderful spokesperson,” violinist and attorney Curtis M. Horton says.
And humor is always on House’s menu.
“She could be a stand-up comedian,” violist Paige Schenker says of House’s addresses to audiences.
While House jokes that the things she does for fun and for work both require a black dress, taking on the responsibility of serving as president of the organization has added new challenges to her already filled plate. She must now walk a fine line between doing work for the orchestra while at the same time making sure the support she is getting is not because she is a judge.
As a bench officer, House is prevented from fundraising and she refuses to have her name put on any mailers the organization sends out. And it just wouldn’t work for people to come to her concerts with the purpose of trying to curry favor in her courtroom.
“I don’t advertise that I’m part of the orchestra because I don’t want people to feel like they have to come,” House says.
But it’s hard to ignore House’s passion for her music—she had a string quartet from the orchestra play at the ceremony when she became a judge. And she performed a duet with fellow Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Helen I. Bendix at a Judges’ College reception in Berkeley.
As much as she says she enjoys her work on the bench, House says it is essential for judges to be involved in their communities and not relegate themselves to friends and activities revolving around the legal community.
“That’s not who we’re dealing with when we’re deciding cases,” she says. “It’s about the average person.”
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company