Dressler was a mover in more ways than one! She was born Leila Koerber, November 9, 1868 [not 1869] in Cobourg, Ontario of Alexander Rudolph Koerber and Annie Henderson of Port Hope. Her Austrian-born father was an excellent musician who had taught music by his own method at Princeton University. However, due to his fits of temper, the family was always on the move. During their stay in Cobourg, they lived at 212 King Street West, a house which they rented from the Field family. Koerber was a music teacher and the organist at St. Peter's Anglican Church. Dressler describes this itinerant way of life when she writes:
I was always going somewhere. When I was a child, it was with the family, moving all over Canada and the State of Michigan - from Cobourg to Toronto, to Lindsay, to Saginaw to Bay City. And then, when I started touring with the show companies, wherever I hung my hat became home.
Leila's mother often presented short dramas for community audiences. On one occasion, five-year old Leila, dressed as a cherub, was placed on a pedestal on the stage. She was warned not to move. The child did not move. However, the curtain did, and it swept the cherub off the pedestal and into the lap of Lindsay's greatest "ladies' man." The audience saw this as hilarious and gales of laughter followed. Leila seems to have assumed that she was funny, and that people would laugh at her antics. Dressler remembers this incident as one of the influences that led to her playing the clown in her early years.
As the Koerbers travelled from town to town, Leila always had to make new friends. Knowing that she was good at play-acting, Leila often turned to this activity as a way of being accepted among her peers. Roberta Ann Raider (footnote 1) , who chose to write her PhD dissertation on the acting skills of Dressler, suggests that such acting games strengthened the girl's desire to be a professional actor. Another woman who knew Leila as a playmate says:
Leila was always the ringleader. She usually wrote, directed and starred in the productions and because she was so much fun, we were always glad to let her. However, her mischievous nature sometimes led our parents to question the desirability of her influence.
Another Saginaw, Michigan neighbour recalls that the father disapproved of his daughter's productions, and that Leila often irritated him by threatening to go over to Boardwell's Opera House and dance on a barrel. Finally, when Leila was fourteen, she wrote to the Nevada Travelling Stock Company requesting a job. She informed the company that she was eighteen years old, and that she was an accomplished actress. Without an audition, she was hired.
What kind of company would engage an actress sight unseen? Dressler later called it "a cheap dramatic company of eleven" but "a wonderful school." She evaluates the Nevada Company this way:
The type of theatrical company which would engage a fourteen year old girl for a leading lady seems to have vanished from the face of the earth. In those days, there were hundreds of companies composed of broken old professionals who had come down the ladder and eager amateurs on the way up. Nevada's collection ran the scale from has-beens to would-bes.
Footnote 1: Raider. Roberta Ann. A descriptive Study of the Acting of Marie Dressler. University of Michigan PhD Thesis. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms. 1970. (back)