Marion Garmel, longtime Indianapolis arts journalist, dies: 'A connector in the community'

Corrections & Clarifications: A previous version of this story included a reference to Marion Garmel's husband as Richard Garmel. His name was Raymond Garmel.

For more than 50 years, Marion Garmel worked to elevate the Indianapolis visual arts and theater scenes — first as a longtime newspaper reporter and critic, then as an extraordinarily active retiree.

In the eyes of one of her favorite readers, her life's work was a complete success.

"When I was a kid, I thought Indy was the cultural center of the world," said Josh Blum, Garmel's grandson and a professional musician known nationally as Josh Joplin. "Because she was covering artists, writers and making the rounds in all of these heady places."

Garmel introduced Blum, who spent his summers in Indianapolis as a child, to famed Broadway star Carol Channing, among others. She even taught him how to sneak into a local blues club — it's probably best not to mention the name — as a teen with a budding love for guitar.

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"She taught me that if you look like you belong there, you belong there. Walk straight, don't look at anyone, and you're in," he recalled with a slight laugh.

On Saturday, having bid farewell to closest relatives and family members, Garmel died in the Meridian-Kessler home she kept for 51 years. She was 86.

Blum, his wife, Cherie, and their daughter, Lomie, moved from New York into Garmel's home a few months ago to help with her care. His grandmother wrote every day, typically during her morning coffee. She remained active in various news and theater-related groups even as her health declined.

"We all loved Marion because she was a connector who shared her friends with everyone," Blum said.

From El Paso to Indy

Garmel was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, the eldest of Marcus and Frieda Simon's five children.

Her brother, Sam Simon, described the family as lower middle class. The children were provided for but afforded only one luxury: Family membership at the El Paso Tennis & Racquet Club. Garmel eventually won a state championship in doubles, Simon said.

She graduated from El Paso High School, where an $1,800-per-year scholarship will be established in her name for a graduate interested in journalism, Blum said.

Garmel graduated from the University of Texas in 1958. In 1961, she became an arts reporter and theater critic for The National Observer, a Dow Jones newspaper in the Washington, D.C. area. There she met her husband, Raymond Garmel, who worked as an attorney and urban planner for the federal government.

The Garmels moved to Indianapolis in 1970, when Raymond took a job as a planner for the Model Cities program under then-Mayor Richard Lugar. Her husband died in 1987.

Garmel will be buried in her native El Paso on Sunday, Blum said, but a celebration of her life will be held at her Indianapolis home in May, her favorite month.

Life as a theater critic

Garmel wrote in a 2002 farewell column in The Star that she had hoped to continue reviewing plays upon moving to Indianapolis. However, both the Star and News had two firmly entrenched critical institutions in Corbin Patrick and Charles Staff, so she set about covering visual arts and TV for the News in 1971.

In 1990, Garmel got her shot, and she set about taking a uniquely positive approach to the beat — first for the News, then for the Star after the two papers merged in 1995. She retired in 2002 but remained a Star correspondent and avid writer for years.

"She was a dedicated soldier for the truth," Blum said of watching his grandmother work after countless plays. "She wrote beautifully and concisely, and she made her deadline."

In her final Star column, Garmel proudly defended her record of dishing out only one negative review: A touring performance of "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," starring Ann-Margret.

Simon recalled that Garmel, as a Texan, expected better of the performance. His sister once shared her review philosophy with him, having vowed to never trash a play — particularly in community theater.

"She believed all glory goes to those who walk on stage and give it a shot," Simon said.

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Garmel used most of her final column inches to heap praise on the local theater scene and some of her favorite shows, including a Civic Theatre performance of "Singin' in the Rain," the Phoenix Theatre's 1997 version of "The Old Settler" and a "Damn Yankees" tour that included Jerry Lewis.

Janet Allen is the Indiana Repertory Theatre's Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director, having first joined the organization during Garmel's Indianapolis News tenure in the 1980s.

“Marion was a wonderful supporter of Indy’s theatre community," Allen said in a written statement. "She held us to high standards but always befriended everybody and encouraged everyone. (Garmel was) very much a realist, but her heart was always in it. She played a big role as a connector in the community and was our greatest cheerleader for many years. She will be dearly missed.”

Garmel was an active member of the Women's Press Club of Indiana beginning in 1974, serving as the organization's secretary and director of the Communicator of Achievement award from 2005 until 2019. She twice won the award — WPCI's highest honor — in 1985 and 2012.

"Marion was a legendary treasure for WPCI," said Natalie Hoefer, the organization's president. "I just can't imagine the organization without her."

Creating a community

Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, a longtime cellist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, first met Garmel through the local arts scene more than 40 years ago. Like Blum, she was drawn to Garmel's fierce sense of community building.

"We are Jewish, and we don't have family here," Fischer-Bellman said of her husband, former ISO principal clarinetist David Bellman, and daughter. "A lot of holiday celebrations were done around her table. Other friends in town would gather as well, and it all expanded."

Fischer-Bellman recalled hours upon hours spent discussing film, theater, music and art with Garmel. She once gave Fischer-Bellman a book on French painter Eugène Delacroix, which moved the latter to compose a musical program based on its pages.

David Bellman remembered Garmel's warmness.

"She nurtured our daughter, who was always welcomed in her home," Bellman said. "She even hosted our cat on more than one occasion, though he avoided her the whole time. She knew he was there because the food would disappear."

The couple visited Garmel on Saturday afternoon at Blum's urging, as part of a list of close friends and family Garmel wished to bid goodbye.

"We said we will forever love you, and you will be in our heart," Fischer-Bellman said. "She mouthed back word for word whatever I said. It was the most incredible feeling I've ever had. I've never had that gift to say something like that to somebody."

'I'm missing her voice already'

Garmel is survived by one biological child, Cindy, and a grandchild, Emily Rogers. She also remained active in the lives of Blum, who is the son of Raymond Garmel's daughter from a previous marriage, and other family members.

Blum and Simon recalled Garmel's excitement at the prospect of hopping into one of her two Chevy Corvairs (doubling up was necessary, as one was almost always broken down) and driving across the country for a family reunion, journalism conference or other gathering.

Simon and his three siblings kept a daily email chain — and, eventually, Zoom meeting schedule — to discuss books on Jewish spirituality and thought. They had been reading The Book of Proverbs when she died.

"My trouble is I'm missing her voice already," he said. "She and I would argue all the time."

Faith was deeply important to Garmel, who remained a regular member of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation and the local chapter of Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

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Simon recalled a rebellious advocacy streak in his formative years that tied him to his eldest sister. He kept diaries as he struggled with life as a teenager, as well as the letters of encouragement he received from Garmel.

He was able to show this collection to his sister during a recent visit to say goodbye.

Simon, an attorney for most of his life, would eventually write and star in a one-man show, "The Actual Dance," based on his wife's unlikely survival after a grim breast cancer diagnosis in 2000. He first performed it for Garmel at a 2013 family reunion, then, at her urging, at Indy Fringe in 2014. He would eventually tour the country with the production.

He recalled his sister's love for the stage and those who populate it, and how she nurtured that flame in Simon.

"I was in a play in El Paso — I think I was a freshman in college — and I told mom, and mom didn't like that," he remembered writing to Garmel. "Mom was wrong, she told me. And I'll try to tell her that. But the acting community is made up of the best people."

Rory Appleton is the pop culture reporter at IndyStar. Contact him at 317-552-9044 and, or follow him on Twitter at @RoryDoesPhonics.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Marion Garmel, Indianapolis theater critic and arts reporter, dies