A Brush with Fame

Marie 1

Marie Dressler was a star of the stage, and would soon become a star of the screen as well. In 1910, she was filling the Herald Square Theatre on Broadway for every performance of “Tillie’s Nightmare,” portraying a drudge in a boarding house. The playwright, Edgar McPhail Smith, set the first act in an upstate village called Skaneateles. Dressler thought the setting was fictional, but upon learning otherwise said she must visit.

In January of 1911, when Tillie’s touring company played the Wieting Opera House in Syracuse, Dressler saw her opportunity. She arrived in the village by trolley and was met by the wife of Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt, along with Mrs. W.J. Shotwell and Miss Mabel Avery. After a brief walking tour for the benefit of Ms. Dressler and a photographer, the star was whisked off to Roosevelt Hall in Mrs. Roosevelt’s sleigh. It was left to her manager, John H. Dalton, to chat up the locals at the bar of the Packwood House.

While Dressler professed to be delighted and charmed by the village, the local press was less so. Before the visit, a reporter for the Auburn Advertiser noted, “Marie Dressler has a play, the plot of which is said to be laid in Skaneateles. As some of the situations are somewhat risqué, we conclude that the writer does not know Skaneateles very well. Skaneateles does not get any gayer to speak of than standing around the steamer to see excursionists come and go.”

Two days after the visit, a reporter for the Syracuse Herald complained of being snubbed. “It was a Marie Dressler’s greeting in all her greatness – not 200 pounds of infectious laughter spread over six feet, but so much of crushing loftiness.” He was not invited to lunch at Roosevelt Hall and instead had to settle for drinking beer at the Packwood House. (Perhaps because the Herald‘s review was headlined, “A Real Nightmare.”)

Upon her return to the Packwood, Dressler said, “Talk about Versailles and all your European piles, Roosevelt Hall with its exquisite furnishings beats them all.”

And then it was back onto the trolley and off to Auburn for the evening’s performance.

*   *   *

A highlight of “Tillie’s Nightmare” was Dressler singing “Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl,” in which a young girl’s mother says, “The city is a wicked place as anyone can see… So every week you’d better send your wages back to me.”

*   *   *

“Tillie’s Nightmare,” The Post-Standard, January 3, 1911

“A Real Nightmare,” Syracuse Herald, January 3, 1911

“’Tillie Blobbs,’ Alias Marie Dressler, Has Time of Her Life in Skaneateles; Is Entertained by High ‘Sassiety’ and ‘Pop’ Conron, the Village’s ‘Mayor’,” Syracuse Herald, January 5, 1911

“In Tillie’s Town,” The Auburn Citizen, January 5, 1911


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