“It all started with a story on NPR in 2008,” says Deb Achatz of Trout Creek, who first dreamed up the area’s long-time comedy a capella group, Ze Merry Maries. She was struck by a piece saying that performance art was not taught in schools as much as it used to be.
“Music, art, and performance are so important to kids’ minds,” says Achatz. “I thought, ‘instead of complaining about it, what can I do?’” Having sung in a competitive high school choir, “I thought maybe I should put together a show.” By performing in schools, she hoped to show students that music is something you can do your whole life.
“I felt that whatever I did needed to be multi-layered. Singing, dance, humor, costumes, — you need to keep it up and never fall into a lull. That can keep kids’ attention.” To this day, she says she still has no idea where the idea came from to dress in Marie Antoinette costumes and adopt ridiculous fake French accents.
Achatz contacted musically inclined friends and the idea started to gel. Most gowns were purchased pre-made, but some were sewn from scratch, requiring many days of work. Then there are the wigs, the costume jewelry, ever-evolving props, and occasional purchases of music. “One thing about this hobby,” she quips. “It ain’t cheap.”
Members have come and gone through the years, with each new singer adopting a “Marie” persona, and not generally sharing their real names. Achatz is “Marie Sauvignon Blanc. I can perform at room temperature or slightly chilled.” Others currently include “Marie Chocolat du BonBon,” “Marie Mustard from Dijon,” and “Marie Beau Coup of gay ‘Pa-ree’.” One woman who felt she did not know how to sing started as the “Mutant” (mute) Jester, “Marie Mon Ami from ze court of Louie,” a role she still charms audiences with, but has also learned to sing harmony.
THE GROUP started by creating a Christmas show which they have performed at schools throughout the county, and for private parties and senior citizens. From there, it “morphed,” says Achatz, into several different acts for many venues in Sanders and neighboring counties. Many acts developed over the ten years of the TRACS Variety Show fundraiser, such as The Beatles, The Galaxy Girls, Dumb and Dumber, and one of their favorites, The Lucys, a jazzy tribute that was performed throughout Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday year. One performance at the Thompson Falls airport instigated The Tarmacs, in which they dressed as stewardesses and sang with musicians Caroline Penny and Chloe and Leanna Klaus.
All performances have been for free, though they have occasionally been offered a fee. “You couldn’t afford us,” is the common wisecrack rejoinder. They have performed for tips in bars, however, with all collections going to local school music programs.
Achatz enjoys the creativity of working out harmonies and choreography, and every year new jokes arise from the group’s time together that end up added to the schtick. “Ze Zhingle of Ze Bells (instead of Jingle Bells) causes an outbreak of collective nouns: “Ze Murder of Crows. Ze Tyranny of Children. Ze Embarrassment of Riches,” and on it goes, not missing a beat.
Though they have been together a long time, every show brings new situations that can sometimes lead to mistakes or confusion. Ze Merry Maries capitalize on these as moments to add slapstick and banter, playing the fools while sorting it out.
“I read somewhere that the highest form of art is that which makes people smile,” says Achatz. “If nothing else, we do bring smiles.”