Tributes to much-loved Burnley theatrical and musical personality

Tributes have been paid to one of Burnley's best known and loved theatrical and musical personalities.
In an advert with then Manchester United captain Roy KeaneIn an advert with then Manchester United captain Roy Keane
In an advert with then Manchester United captain Roy Keane

Desmond Cummings, husband of over 70 years to Rachel who died last spring, died on December 27th aged 92 after a long and fascinating life.

He had been active in local theatre and music for over 50 years, most notably as chairman of the Masque Players and in more recent years with the Burnley Garrick Club.

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He was born in 1928 into a mining family, the oldest of six boys. He is survived by brothers Joe, (who has long been a resident of France), and Terry. His youngest brother Jimmy was killed in the Hapton Valley Pit Disaster in 1962, and he had two other twin brothers, the late-Tom and his brother Francis who died in infancy.

Desmond CummingsDesmond Cummings
Desmond Cummings

At the end of the Second World War, whilst still in his teens, he was posted as a Corporal to the Peel POW Camp near Hellifield. Apparently, there were only three officers, but the Germans weren't intent on causing any trouble or escaping, and merely caused mischief from time to time.

He would relate stories of his frequent "run-ins" with a tall handsome young German officer who would often break curfew, (with a "one man tent"), in order to have assignations with local girls, for which of course the young Des, would put him on a charge. To make the story more entertaining in the telling, this German happened to be called Adolph!

Upon discharge, unlike his brothers, he didn't work at the pit but got a job as a storeman at Burco and then Joseph Lucas, but education, music and drama were always his passion, and having been a leading member of St John's choir, Ivy Street, from his early days he became well-known for his lyrical high tenor voice, and sang solos at many weddings, festivals and other occasions.

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Around 1970 he sang the lead role in Kalman's Countess Maritza and Alfredo in Die Fledermaus, and this gave him a passion for the stage, but he wasn't really so interested in musical theatre. His main areas of interest were music, (particularly "Classical / Art" songs), poetry, and straight plays.

Over the next 50 years he played many leading roles with most of the local drama groups, and was also highly regarded as a director, notably of “Amadeus”, “Shadowlands” and “Chorus of Disapproval” for the Garrick. He also did some professional work.

Nephew Nigel Wilkinson said: "By any standards, he was extremely knowledgeable about classical music, particularly vocal music and classical singers.

"He would always study the weekly schedule for Radio Three and pick out the highlights, and had recordings of all the great singers. He had an extensive collection of poetry books, music folios and recordings, including complete sets of songs not only by the great lieder composers such as Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Hugo Wolf, but also by more obscure composers such as Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov.

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"One of the most significant things he ever did was to take his son John, along with Howard Raw and his niece Kathleen Cummings down to join Burnley Light Opera, and this led them both to achieve great things, of which he was very proud.

"John and Howard are now regarded as among the leading performers and directors in the North West region, and Kathleen became a professional opera singer, now singing under her married name of Wilkinson. Many other young performers and singers have been grateful for his support and encouragement, and he sponsored the annual music prize at St Theodores'.

"He would often remind the younger generation of all the great singers he had heard in Burnley in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, including Kathleen Ferrier at the Odeon, and Joan Hammond and many others at the 'Police Concerts'.

"He was in the choir when Pope John Paul II came to Heaton Park.

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"He had married Rachel in 1949, and they shared many interests and hobbies together, including walking, and they were both leading members of the Burnley Ramblers for many years, this led to them being very much involved with the CHA ,and would often host events for the association.

"They also ran a stall on Burnley Flea Market, and Des had a spell buying and selling at book fairs - another great interest of his.

"Following retirement, he also got himself an agent. This led to him playing small parts in many films, tv programmes and commercials.

"On one occasion he got into the national papers. He did an advert for 'Snickers' with Man Utd Captain Roy Keane. Des was a priest in a confessional box, and the controversial footballer was making a confession of all his 'footballing crimes'.

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"Unfortunately, when the PFA got wind of it, they pulled it because they said it brought the game into disrepute, so it was only allowed to be published as a still photograph in magazines where it didn't have the same impact or exposure.

"In addition to his many talents, Des was renowned by all who knew him for his wonderful sense of humour, and a generosity of spirit and kindness that set him apart from many others.

"Both he and Rachel were deeply affected when their oldest son Tony died in 2018. They are survived by John and his wife Lynne, both of whom are very active on the local stage, and their two daughters, Joanna and Jessica, who herself has done professional theatre work and is currently employed in Germany."

The funeral, held at St Mary's Church, Yorkshire Street, was limited in numbers due to current restrictions, but local actor Alan Hargreaves, did one of the readings, Kathleen Wilkinson sang Faure and Mendelssohn, with husband Nigel playing the organ, and son John read a tribute.

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"Grand-daughters Joanna and Jessica read poems at the crematorium and a recording was played of Desmond singing a song By Scarlatti. It was a real family occasion marking the final passing of the head of this well-known musical and theatrical family. His legacy will live on," Nigel added.

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