When Ken Heimlich graduated from Cardington High School in 1949, he was recruited to sing in a barbershop quartet for the ceremony.
“I was hooked. It’s so much fun!” Heimlich exclaimed.
In 1980, Heimlich was one of the founding members of the Marionaires. Decades later, Heimlich and 16 other members are still making music.
“When you get four parts on a chord and you get it locked in just right, it sends chills up my spine. That’s why a lot of people like it,” said Mark Smith of Green Camp, the president of the Marionaires Board of Directors.
John Hoch of Prospect is another original member who is still actively involved. For him, singing was a family tradition.
“My dad was a barbershopper in Marion before us. They used to take me to the Buckeye Four quartet chorus practice. I would fill in for the lead at practice when he was running late,” Hoch remembers.
Virgil Rankin of Marion graduated from high school in 1957. After he retired in 2012, Duane Kline invited him to join the group. Rankin was happy to accept.
“I’ve always loved it!” Rankin says, now in his 80s.
The newest members are Mike, Carson, and Connor Neff of Marion. They saw the Marionaires performing at the Marion Noon Kiwanis Pancake Day this spring and decided to get involved. Though Carson only graduated from Harding High School in 2020, the 20-year-old brings a lot of experience including show choirs and the All-State Choir.
“I’ve been singing forever,” Carson Neff said. “Every time I ran into Dennis Swartz, he told me I had to join the group. It’s been such a good decision to join!”
“For me, it’s really nice to sing with my kids,” Mike Neff said.
This all-male group has its first female director. Doris Berube of Columbus is a certified Sweet Adeline and Barbershop Director. She had directed a barbershop group in Delaware that did joint performances with the Marionaires before she joined here.
“She’s the prettiest director we’ve had,” said Heimlich.
“We have a lot of fun,” Berube. “My husband encouraged me to take the role of director. He asks me, ‘Are you going to go be with your men tonight?’”
“Some of us, our wives want us to get out of the house!” another member joked.
Berube was too shy to sing in high school.
“Then someone invited me to come to a rehearsal and I was hooked!” Berube said. After singing with a Columbus chorus for decades, she finds it worth the drive to Marion to direct these singers.
While COVID-19 has interrupted their annual performance in April at the Marion Palace Theatre, they do other appearances, including the Summer Concert Series at McKinley Park.
Another annual tradition is providing singing Valentines each February. Quartets from the group drop by homes and workplaces with roses and romantic ballads.
“You get all kinds of responses,” said Smith. “Some are pleased. Some are a little embarrassed. In a business, everyone pops their heads out of their office doors to see the performance.”
While interest in barbershops has waned, and the COVID-19 pandemic has added additional challenges, many long-time members say they are sticking with the Marionaires. Steve Ward of Green Camp has been in the Marionaires for more than 20 years. At 91, original member Heimlich said singing in the Marionaires is one of his keys to a long life, along with “a little schnapps before bed.”
A mixture of laughter and harmony makes the essence of the Marionaires. This uniquely American music was originated by African-Americans in the 1800s in the south, according to the Barbershop Harmony Society. The Marionaires are a member of this association working to keep and preserve this tradition. Women are invited to sing locally and nationally.
Anyone who is interested in joining the Marionaires can call Dennis Swartz at (740) 225-5499 or email him at email@example.com, or call Mark Smith at (740) 225-0408.