Reaching Broadway is one accomplishment; becoming a star on the legitimate stage is quite another. The actress was young, with great aspirations, and with the health and energy required to struggle for success. When she did not have a stage role, she appeared at the Old Atlantic Garden in the Bowery, and at Koster and Bial's on Twenty-third Street where she sang two songs a night for the much-needed ten dollars. Around her was a maze of activity. At this time Broadway fare consisted of musical comedy, serious drama, vaudeville and burlesque thus giving her a choice of the entertainment media in which to perform. Dressler's own words reveal the quandary she felt she was in: "I longed to make good, but I was handicapped in spite of a lovely voice. I knew that I belonged in the theatre but I didn't know where. I was too homely for a prima donna and too big for a soubrette."
Maurice Barrymore, playwright and director, had an answer. He saw a comedy future for Dressler and cast her as "Cunigone" in his production of "The Robber of the Rhine." Consequently, on May 28, 1892, Dressler appeared in her first Broadway role, but alas, the show was unsuccessful and soon closed. All was not lost for she had been seen by George Lederer, a leading Broadway producer, who recognized her talents and asked her to play as a supporting actress to the famed Lillian Russell. This was Dressler's big break. On November 24, 1893, she opened with Russell at the Casino Theatre in "Princess Nicotine." After a long successful run on Broadway, this show toured the country making Dressler well-known across America.
What was the nature of Dressler's acting style which allowed her such success? The actress had built her craft day-by-day, and her great asset became the ability to use her very mobile face. She could show expressions of outrage, boredom, or other assorted means of dissent whenever her fellow actors got pretentious or stupid. Whenever there was a gap or whenever an actor was weak, Dressler could steal the show by ad libbing, or by performing a gag she had learned on the road. She also learned to reach across the footlights and talk to the audience.
Dressler had been told earlier by Barrymore that her face was her fortune. Keeping this suggestion in mind, the performer moved ahead playing such comedic roles as Aurora in "Girofle-Girofla" and Mrs. Malaprop in "The Rivals," both important roles for an actress wishing to be a comedienne. Some time between 1894 and 1900 she married George Hoppert, a theatre employee. One news source maintains that Dressler gave birth to a baby girl who died in infancy. Dressler never talked about this part of her life. I do not know if she divorced Hoppert, or if he died.
Four years after she reached Broadway, Dressler experienced a real triumph in that she was identified by both the critics and the public for her performance as Flo Honeydew in the Lady Slavey. " This comedy played for two years and then went on tour. Dressler took ill and returned to New York. Her manager, A.E. Erlanger, accused her of shamming, and had her blacklisted on the New York stage. Dressler had to take to the road again, this time with the Rich and Harris Touring Company in which she played Dottie Dimple in "Courted Into Court." She sang Negro songs, danced the ' cakewalk' and continued to experiment with facial expression. According to a comment written during that period by Peter Robinson of the San Francisco Chronicle:
She is a genuine woman comedienne, as distinguished from a soubrette (a lady's maid who gives saucy one-liners.) She acts with intelligence and with clear insight into comic propositions. She contorts her face until it looks like the wattles of a turkey gobbler in a rage... She is not afraid to look unattractive; that makes her the comedienne unusual.
Back in New York, Dressler continued in musical comedy and in vaudeville. Then daring and adventurous, as always, she decided to play the Palace Theatre in London, England. There her show ran for thirty weeks, drawing an overwhelmingly favourable response from the British. Buoyed by her success, she risked investing her own funds in two more London shows which failed abjectly. Dressler fell into such debt that she had to work two years on vaudeville circuits to become financially solvent.
Despite her great debt, and the hardships of the vaudeville circuit, Dressler achieved some personal happiness, for she met James Dalton who became her 'husband' and manager. Back on Broadway Dressler enjoyed her greatest success in the comedy "Tillie's Nightmare." In this she is Tillie Blobbs, a poor drudge who works in her mother's boarding house. She sits at the piano and sings "Heaven Will Protect The Working Girl." This song is followed by a grandiose dream sequence in which Dressler gives imitations of Sarah Bernhardt (shown at right) and plays the prima donna of a comic opera. Her style is "about as subtle as a billboard," and a little risque, but the audiences did not seem to mind. Rather, they found her quite amusing.
There was more to Dressler's portrayal of Tillie Blobbs than funny business. She was able to compel hearty sympathy for the character, thus achieving a balance of comedy and pathos. Dressler believed that "affectation killed comedy, and so she tried to create a sincerity and genuineness of character that reminded the audience of fact not fiction." As audiences sympathized with Tillie Blobbs and took her to heart, so they related to Dressler, making her name an admired household word; in other words, a star. "Tillie's Nightmare" was the play which would later give her a toe-hold in silent movies, as well as giving her real celebrity status.