Chester Martin Remembers Esther Dressler, Director Of Plays

Saturday, June 25, 2016 - by Chester Martin
Esther Dressler
Esther Dressler

Many year ago - back around 1950 - I was involved in a number of theatrical productions here in Chattanooga. I was never in a major role, but there were a number of instances where a chorus was needed, or a crowd scene was required. I could help out with either or both, and it was always a lot of fun, even with rehearsals that ended at midnight or later.

Often there was a "new lady" present who, although not "the" director of our group, was obviously there to assist, and her superior knowledge of Stagecraft was quite apparent. She would be called in to offer her opinions and judgments as to how a scene should best be portrayed and everyone paid her great deference.

This lady turned out to be Mrs. Esther Dressler.

Her main focus at the time was with the Chattanooga Little Theater, which is now called the "Chattanooga Theatre Center." Although under their employ, she was free to volunteer her services as needed or requested at any other stage venue in the city, so that many other theatrical groups were benefited by her knowledge.

As readers of this "Memories" column may have noticed, I had a vocational school education, and my art teacher was Stephen A. Harding. Harding had grown up in Manhattan and learned Stagecraft there. He directed all the plays for the Frye Institute in Chattanooga and knew Mrs. Dressler through that connection.  He had great respect for her and the work she did at the Little Theater. They collaborated on a number of stage productions and were acquainted with many of the same people, frequently sharing the same performers.

Mrs. Dressler directed all the finest actors and actresses that Chattanooga had to offer, and those names had to include both Harriet and Walter Sumner - a husband and wife team - and also Roy Morris of local radio and TV fame - who found time to participate in many on-stage events.

Like her, many of our local theater people were transplants. She came originally from South Dakota - but by way of New York City, where she received theatrical training. Several other locals had also been schooled in the Big Apple, so were well-prepared to handle virtually any role that came their way. This was the "Grace Moore" era in Chattanooga, when there was a lot of interchange of talent between there and here. Dr. Werner Wolfe, and wife, Emmy Land Wolfe, of the new Chattanooga Opera Association, for example, were able to bring Metropolitan Opera singers to town to perform in key roles. The strong ties between the Chattanooga Times and New York Times newspapers also aided and abetted this situation. Chattanooga had some great connections!

(We also had some outstanding local people as well, such as Dorothy Hackett Ward).

Our local theater groups frequently followed what had been popular on the New York stage several years earlier, and I remember one especially delightful musical production of "Up in Central Park" which Mrs. Dressler directed - and in which Nancy Spotswood, a local performer with operatic aspirations (who lived, incidentally, on my street in Brainerd) sang the female lead. (ALL the original scenery and costumes came from the Broadway production, and I remember the scratchy wool suit I had to wear as a member of the chorus!),  Other productions - touring companies - came through Chattanooga which frequently needed a few local actors to play minor but important parts. Esther Dressler would be contacted well in advance and she would then prepare local actors for their roles in the traveling production. The enduring popularity of Theater in Chattanooga can be traced directly back to the enthusiasm of Esther Dressler, and her legacy continues today.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to contact such wonderful theater enthusiasts as Artie Lou Born who could have undoubtedly contributed some entertaining anecdotes to this story. Patricia “Tots” Moore could have done the same…

Esther was born in Watertown, South Dakota, but grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She moved to New York City where she met and married William Dressler. In the early war years the family moved to Chattanooga where they owned and operated Barron’s, a manufacturer of nurse and WAC uniforms. After the war they started a jewelry business which they continued into their 80’s after “retiring” to Florida. Besides Esther, I knew her son, (Dr.) Stanley Dressler, and daughter, Myrna, through Sunnyside School on North Germantown Road. Stanley likes to tell how they used to tease his father, William, by claiming he was a “loser”. It seems that Esther came in “second” in the 1927 Minneapolis beauty pageant, and did not get to go on to Atlantic City. There had been 20 candidates.

After all her duties as wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother – even great-great grandmother - were fulfilled, and after the time spent in Florida, she returned to Chattanooga where she passed away in 2006 – at age 96! (Almost exactly 10 years ago as I write this).

AND, Dr. Stanley, I want you to know you were totally wrong about teasing your dad in the manner you describe above, as HE was the FIRST PLACE winner, after all!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

 


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