Louise Dresser (Louise Josephine Kerlin, 1878-1965) is at the center of one of vaudeville’s more excellent subterfuges. A perfomer since age 15, three years later she chanced to meet a friend of her deceased father, the Tin Pan Alley songwriter Paul Dresser. (Dresser was novelist Theodore Dreiser’s brother, and incidentally, if you’re looking for an in-depth portrait of the theatre-going experience at the turn of the century, and the life of the female performer, look no father than Sister Carrie). Louise became Dresser’s protégé. At his instigation, she changed her name to Dresser and pretended to be his sister. Throughout her vaudeville career audiences and journalists believed this to be the case. The relationship was to their mutual benefit; Louise sang all of his songs. It was also strictly professional. In 1898, she married singer/songwriter Jack Norworth.
“Louise Dresser and Her Picks” (or “pickaninnies”, i.e., she was accompamied by a small contigent of black children) toured the country throughout the oughts. In the next decade, she donned the sock and buskin and became an actress. She alternated Broadway plays such as A Matinee Idol (1910), Broadway to Paris (1912) and Hello Broadway! (1914) with dramatic playlets in vaudeville.
In the 20s, she began acting in films. Her 50 screen credits include the title character in the Al Jolson vehicle Mammy (1930), and several Will Rogers films: Lightnin’ (1930), the original State Fair (1933) and Doctor Bull (1933). Her last role was in Maid of Salem (1937) with Claudette Colbert. Though she often played old women during the talkie period, Dresser was only 59 at the time of her retirement. She died in 1965 at the age of 87.
To find out more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.