Dressler Joins Comedy Greats in Hall of Fame Induction

In Local

By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
Marie Dressler Foundation Chair Rick Miller proudly announces a new addition to Cobourg’s Canadian Women In Film Museum – the trophy presented last weekend at the Canadian Comedy Hall of Fame Museum on the induction of Marie Dressler.

The honour was in their Legacy category, Miller pointed out. Dressler died in 1934, and was joined in this category by Billy Van, who died 20 years ago. Other inductees included Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Jim Carrey, Steve Smith (also known as Red Green) and the cast of SCTV.

“This adventure started in December, when it was announced that Marie had been nominated to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and I was contacted by the organizers asking me to make a tribute to Marie at the induction ceremony if I was able to,” Miller said in an interview this week.

“I was pleasantly surprised, and thought, ‘Well deserved.’ Then I looked at the other inductees for this year and said, ‘Wow! They are in good company with Marie.’”

The induction ceremony was last weekend in Hamilton, home of the Comedy Hall of Fame.

“I was invited to make some comments in front of several hundred people, which is kind of intimidating in front of professional comedians who got the crowd going. Then I step up.

“I think I made some converts to Marie Dressler, because I think a lot of people in the crowd may not have been knowledgeable about who she was or what she achieved.

“Also in my five minutes of tribute, I ended up by telling people about the museum, and they should come and visit.”

Though she died 90 years ago, Miller stated that her achievements continue to inspire off the screen as well.

“The thing we have to recognize is that she fought successfully against the gender expectations of her time. Here was a woman in her 60s getting the Academy Award. Here was a woman who didn’t meet the Hollywood beauty standards becoming the most popular actress in Hollywood. A lot of women didn’t get the opportunities because of those things.

“Marie wasn’t ready to accept that. She fought back, and she was successful.

“At the end of her career, she was in movies with stars like Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow, and she was still the top box-office draw in 1932 and 1933, and the first actress and obviously the first Canadian to have a cover story in Time magazine in August 1933.”

The Marie Dressler Foundation honours the accomplished actress in a number of ways, like the annual scholarships they present to local graduating students from Northumberland high schools. In 2023, $2,500 in awards was given,

They also established the Vintage Film Festival – originally known as the Marie Dressler Film Festival when first organized some 30 years ago – which spotlights some of the greatest films every made. The theme for the 2024 festival in October will be Great Directors.

The site of the Canadian Women In Film Museum is the home where Dressler was born at 212 King St. It continued to be a home until 1937, when it became what was, for Cobourg, a relatively fancy restaurant.

A 1989 fire put a stop to that, but there was a successful public drive to raise funds to help with the restoration. The restored house became home to Cobourg’s chamber of commerce, allowing it to move out of the basement at Victoria Hall.

A nod to the home’s famous occupant was the memorabilia room set up in the actress’s honour. From a wax museum, they were even able to acquire wax figures of a scene from Tugboat Annie with Dressler and costar Wallace Beery – and the Rotary Club of Cobourg showed their support by funding the air conditioning that kept that display in top shape.

The chamber eventually became the Northumberland Central Chamber of Commerce and moved to a new home on George Street. The town-owned building still housed some of its staff on the site, so the memorabilia room remained open to visitors.

The Marie Dressler Foundation decided to create a real museum in 2014, finding the memorabilia room unsatisfactory.

“You really couldn’t get the story by waling through – you just knew it was somebody famous,” Miller recalled.

The foundation approached the University of Toronto, which had a master’s-degree program in museum studies, and acquired the skills of five promising young women to design the Marie Dressler Museum. With a successful fundraising campaign and a grant from Heritage Canada, the project reached fruition with its September 2016 opening.

“Designed by women, curated by women and built by women, because we hired one of the five women to be project manager,” Miller said.

A couple of years later, the town moved the last of its employees out to other locations, and the foundation appealed to the town for the use of the vacated space for something larger – the Canadian Women in Film Museum, spotlighting the Canadian women who were three of the very first four Best Actress Oscar winners. Along with Dressler, that would be Mary Pickford and Norma Shearer. Miller added that there would also be tributes to other Canadian actresses “from the beginning of filmmaking to the Golden Age of Hollywood.”

They got a long-term lease from the town and returned to the University of Toronto to recruit another five gifted young women to work their magic. The COVID pandemic slowed down their efforts, their fundraising was successful enough for them to open another gallery in 2021 and finally the Norma Shearer gallery in 2022.

Last year, the board approved the creation of a multi-purpose renovated space at the rear of the museum that would include a cinema with 20-seat capacity that can be what he called “an important enabler to conduct educational programming at the museum starting in 2024.”

The museum is open to visitors basically any time, Miller said. In the off-season, it is by appointment only (with instructions for requesting a visit on their website).

And as spring approaches, they look forward to hiring a summer student and preparing to open the doors again – with hours to be announced in the coming weeks.

Cecilia Nasmith
Author: Cecilia Nasmith

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