Haley Wisniewski, Point Park News Service:
Marlene EnDean discovered her passion for music at 18 months old when she belted out an entire song she heard her sister singing, leading to her first radio broadcast at the age of 3.
After her performance at her high school’s prom, Marlene EnDean was asked to join the Artie Arnell Band, exposing her to new cities and performances at country clubs in Ohio, a grand ballroom in Chicago and New York City.
Recently, Vincentian Personal Care became one of the stages for Marlene EnDean’s performances that wake up the residents and leave the audience with chills.
With 77 years behind her, Marlene EnDean has no intention of giving up her music career anytime soon.
“I hope I can continue until I just drop right on the stage,” she said. “I took it for granted, but when I lost my voice, I realized the gift I had. I feel that since God gave me my gift back, I want to continue to share it with people.”
EnDean was born and raised in North Braddock. It was there in 1937 that she found her love for music.
At her sister’s birthday party, the older girls gathered in the living room and sang, “10 Pretty Girls,” while Marlene just watched. The next morning, she decided to take her turn.
“I ran right into the living room where those kids were singing, I stood right at the place they were singing, and I sang the whole song – 18 months old… And of course my mother, you know, couldn’t get over that I did that. So then she would sing different songs to me, and I would listen,” EnDean said.
From there, EnDean’s music career blossomed. In 1939, her mother took her to the Enright Theater in East Liberty to sing and audition for the “The Kiddie Show.” Enright Theater hosted famous stars such as Pittsburgh-born Gene Kelly, Rege Cordic and Dick Powell. Another big name there at the time was the show’s master of ceremonies, Walt Framer, who was sitting at the desk watching the performances.
“My mother told me to take the music and give it to the piano man, and he’ll start to play the song and you’ll sing it,” EnDean said. “Well, I didn’t do that…I got up and walked over to the guy at the desk… I jumped up on his knee, and I rubbed his cheek and I told him he needed to shave – at 3 years old. Of course, he got the biggest kick out of that…He put me on the air that day.”
EnDean aired on the Pittsburgh radio station, WWSW, from that day until she was 12 years old.
When she was 11, EnDean learned to play the piano and expanded her talents. She entered Pittsburgh’s Wilkins Amateur Hour, a show comparable to today’s America’s Got Talent. EnDean placed second, losing to a 10-piece orchestra.
In her sophomore year of high school, EnDean was asked to play the piano and sing at her school’s prom. After her performance, the band’s director approached her to say the lead singer was leaving the band. That night, she became the newest member of the Artie Arnell Band from New Kensington at the age of 15. EnDean, the valedictorian of her high school, stayed with the Artie Arnell Band for 15 years.
When EnDean was in her 30s, rock n’ roll was taking over the music scene. With the big band sound diminishing, EnDean decided to begin freelancing. She continued to perform big band and jazz hits with local bands: Tommy Carlin, Barron Elliot, Hal Curtis and Bobby Dale among others.
She continued this for about 20 years until she was diagnosed with lobar pneumonia in 1986, which required surgery and left her voiceless for six months. Being sick for so long, EnDean was not sure if she would ever be able to perform again.
After 10 years without performing, EnDean went back to doing what she loves. In the 1990s, she started playing piano and singing as a solo artist at local nursing homes, hospitals and AARP meetings under the stage name of “Marla Dean.”
One of the places she has been performing the longest is Vincentian Nursing Home and Personal Care in the North Hills. She began in the nursing home in 1996 when her mother was a resident. Whether she has the whole television room in which to play or just a small corner, EnDean adapts to her given space.
“She’s such a professional that she just goes with the crowd,” said Kathy McKinney, director of activities at Vincentian Personal Care. “When she sings, ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’… I get goose bumps and my eyes well up.”
The television room of Vincentian, usually with four or five residents trying not to fall asleep, turns into a lively concert venue when EnDean arrives.
“They pack the room,” Judy Davis, an employee for Vincentian Personal Care, said.
From “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to the upbeat jazz sounds of Frank Sinatra, EnDean performs a wide range of hit songs inviting her audience to sing along. Even after her shows, EnDean takes the time to talk to her fans and tell them the interesting stories of her life.
“She’s very giving and kind-hearted…and even after she’s done playing, everybody runs up to go talk to her,” Theresa Pisani, one of the residents at Vincentian said. “She doesn’t shun anybody. She loves everybody.”