The Hoosier born-and-and bred Dresser was born Lulu Josephine Kerlin in Evansville, Indiana, on October 5, 1878, and raised there as the daughter of William and Ida Kerlin, he being a train engineer. She sang as a child and grew up as part of various choirs and shows in town. The family moved to Columbus, Ohio, when she reached her teens. Her father was killed in a railroad accident not long after their move. With a burning desire to perform professionally, the pretty 16-year-old ran away from home, abandoned her schooling, and set her heart on making a career for herself in entertainment. She actively pursued singing roles that could benefit her contralto voice in stock, burlesque and vaudeville. She eventually changed her stage name to Louise Kerlin. During this time she became the lovely singing protégé of Tin Pan Alley composer Paul Dresser (né Paul Dreiser). Known at the time for such songs as "On the Banks of the Wabash" and "Far Away", it was Dresser, the brother of novelist Theodore Dreiser, who changed Louise's marquee name to Louise Dresser, and it was Louise who introduced Paul's biggest song hit to American ears, "My Gal Sal". Her affiliation with Paul helped earn her the billing "The Girl from the Wabash."
While on the vaudeville circuit Louise met and married Jack Norworth a performing monologist, best known in later years for providing the lyrics to such old-time classics as "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "Shine On, Harvest Moon." She made her Broadway debut in "About Town" in 1906 which starred her husband, who also provided the songs. By the time Louise settled into the Broadway scene, however, the couple had divorced (after eight years). Noted for her charm and elegance, Louise specialized in light operettas and musical comedy, and year after year increased her marquee value with such New York musical shows as "The Girls of Gottenberg" (1908), "The Candy Shop" (1909), "A Matinee Idol" (1910), and "From Broadway to Paris" (1912).
Louise met Broadway singing star Jack Gardner (1873-1950) along the way. They married in 1908, a year after her divorce from Norworth. The couple went on to headline together in vaudeville but, interestingly, never managed to appear together on the Great White Way. Into the next decade she graced the New York stage with such singing vehicles as George M. Cohan's "Hello, Broadway!" (1914), and in two of Jerome Kern's -- "Have a Heart" (1917) and "Rock-a-Bye, Baby" (1918).
Louise and husband Gardner decided to make a daring pitch for film work by moving to California in 1920. She debuted at age 44 with the film The Glory of Clementina (1922) and her actor/singer husband, who appeared in the movies Hollywood (1923) and Bluff (1924), actually found more success as a Fox Studio executive. Forsaking her musical career, she now served as a reliable character actress in silents, making indelible impressions as the title character in The Goose Woman (1925) and as Catherine the Great in the Rudolph Valentino classic The Eagle (1925).
Louise, Janet Gaynor and Gloria Swanson were nominated for the very first "Best Actress" Oscar award, Louise for her strong, touching portrayal of a Hungarian immigrant in A Ship Comes In (1928) opposite Joseph Schildkraut. It was Ms. Gaynor, however, who earned the distinction of holding up the first trophy (for her work in three roles) while Ms. Swanson and Ms. Dresser received "Citations of Merit". Other famous ladies of history Louise addressed in films would go on to include Calamity Jane in Caught (1931) and Empress Elizabeth in The Scarlet Empress (1934).
In the early 1930s, the actress made a rare return to the stage with the play "A Plain Man and His Wife" in Pasadena. Quite settled by this time in films, she became a familiar presence opposite homespun comedian Will Rogers in such unassuming Rogers vehicles as Lightnin' (1930), State Fair (1933), Doctor Bull (1933), David Harum (1934) and The County Chairman (1935). Rogers' tragic death in a plane accident ended a very warm and lucrative association with the beloved humorist. The devastated Dresser made only one film after that, the Claudette Colbert/Fred MacMurray drama Maid of Salem (1937), which recalled the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s.
Louise and husband Gardner retired to their home in Glendale, California, where she primarily tended to her favorite pastime (gardening), along with taking part in numerous charitable affairs, notably for the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital. Her husband died in 1950 and she followed suit a decade and a half later following surgery for an intestinal blockage on April 24, 1965, in Woodland Hills, California. She was interred at Forest Lawn Cemetary in Glendale.
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