Louise Dresser

From her stage name to her rumored marriage to actor Will Rogers, Louise Dresser manipulated markers of identity and status to her advantage throughout her career. The songwriter Paul Dresser, a family friend, allowed Louise Kerlin to adopt his name and his songs—including “On the Banks of the Wabash” and “My Gal Sal,” which became her trademark—to give her career an early boost. The ruse was so successful that many believed her to be his sister. She was wildly successful in vaudeville, reportedly earning as much as $1,750 a week singing with a chorus of African-American children before turning to Broadway, where she starred in Matinee Idol from 1910–1912, among other roles. She then went to Hollywood, playing Will Rogers’s wife in movies like State Fair in 1933 and David Harum in 1934, to the point where many fans believed they were married. In the first Academy Awards in 1929, she was nominated for best actress for A Ship Comes In. She and Al Jolson performed in blackface as mother and son in Mammy in 1930—an especially common practice for Jewish actors because audiences read the disguised actor as white, not Jewish.

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This 1900 poster advertises Louise Dresser's "The Orpheum Show," in which she, like many other white female vaudeville performers, used African-American children as a chorus of eccentric singers and dancers.

Institution: U.S. Library of Congress.

Date of Birth
Birthplace

Evansville, IN
United States

Date of Death
Occupations
Singer, Actress

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Louise Dresser." (Viewed on April 16, 2021) <https://jwa.org/people/dresser-louise>.

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