Jolly Della Pringle: “The Actress Who Made Iowa Famous”

August 20 is the natal day of pioneering female actor/manager “Jolly” Della Pringle (Cora Della Van Winkle, 1870-1952).

Born in Trenton, Missouri, Pringle began her career as a child performer with the Robert Neff Chicago Comedy Company. John Pringle, one of her five husbands, gave her her professional surname when they married in 1891. Her nickname (frequently associated with circus fat ladies, such as Jolly Ema, Jolly Irene, and Jolly Dolly) merely referred to the fact that she was associated with comedy and possessed a memorable trademark laugh. She was renowned for her physical beauty, among other attributes.

Starting in Knoxville, Iowa, Pringle built her own theatrical company of which she was both leading lady and manager. Though she toured almost the entirety of the continental U.S. from north to south and east to west, she was known and revered primarily in the midwest. Starting in 1908, she made her headquarters in Boise, Idaho. While she did bring her company to major cities, she didn’t stick around long enough to conquer them, she preferred to cover a lot of ground. This tactic was likely more lucrative. Rather than compete in major markets, she cleaned up in regions of the country that were desperate for entertainment. She brought the glamour of the theatre to the hinterlands, wearing imported Parisian fashions, and travelling in her own private Pullman car, and eventually her own entire train.

In 1916 and ’17, when Pringle was in her 40s, she briefly acted in silent films for Mack Sennett and others, appearing in seven films. They were A Social Cub and Haystacks and Steeples, both 1916 and both starring Bobby Vernon, Gloria Swanson and Reggie Morris; and then several made in 1917: The Butterfly Girl, which is interesting chiefly for having been show on the grounds of the Panama Exposition (where Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand had also made a comedy); A Bachelor’s Finish with John Francis Dillon; A Finished Product with Reggie Morris and Alice Lake; and Her Birthday Knight, and His Widow’s Might, both with Harry Depp. In none of these films is Pringle the star; she is normally a supporting player, averaging about fourth in the billing. Accustomed to being both the star and the boss, and to receiving the adulation of adoring live audiences, she seems to have simply decided that films, though clearly the coming thing by now, were simply not for her. Better to be a big fish in a small pond than the other way ’round.

After this brief dalliance with the silver screen she returned to the stage for more years, retiring in 1921. In her last three decades she operated a costume rental business, taught acting, bred dogs, invested in real estate and farming and operated a rooming house (which she knew a little about having been a hotel maid in her youth). She was extremely enterprising, and yet she lost most of her fortune in the Great Depression. In her last years she was destitute.

Eager to know more about Jolly Della Pringle? I know I am! For real, because it sounds like she lived a real life of adventure, visiting remote mining and logging camps and the like, surviving hair-raising accidents and fires, etc etc, etc, and rubbing elbows with characters like Buffalo Bill Cody. Boise theatre professor and stage director Charles E. Lauterbach has written a book, Jolly Della Pringle: Star of the Western Stage, put out by McFarland in 2015. This has added lure because the author is a real scholar and theatre guy (with great regional credits), not just some local crank. This is definitely on my “to read” list! Get your copy here.