News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

February 21, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Great-niece to re-enact Paul Dresser’s musical legacy in Terre Haute show

TERRE HAUTE — People can be forgotten. Their lives end, time passes and memories fade.

Often, the only keepers of their legacies are family and friends, who tell and retell their stories, generation to generation.

For Paul Dresser, his fame burned strong enough as a turn-of-the-century, million-seller songwriter to preserve bits of his public notoriety. The westbound half of the twin Wabash River bridges in Terre Haute bears his name. The small village on the river’s west bank does, too. History books note his accomplishments. But personal remembrances of a man who died in 1906 are rare.

Tedi Dreiser Godard has access to such insights.

She is the great-niece of Dresser and his brother, acclaimed author Theodore Dreiser. She’s also a veteran cabaret singer and actress. Godard will rekindle the memory of her great-uncle Paul with an interpretive performance in his beloved hometown on June 6 at the Holiday Inn in Terre Haute, beginning at 5:30 with cocktails, the show and dinner planned.

The event will serve as a fundraiser for the proposed riverside sculpture by Wabash Valley Art Spaces Inc. for the community’s Cultural Trail. Godard and her husband, Joel Godard — a veteran actor and former announcer for the “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” show — will perform some of Dresser’s hit songs and a theatrical readings from Theodore Dreiser’s poignant tribute to Dresser, “My Brother, Paul.” Tedi’s son, Paul Dreiser Andrews, will handle the technical details of the production.

The night will be part of an eventful spring for Dresser’s legacy. The Indiana Legislature is expected to hear a resolution honoring the composer on March 14 — the 100th anniversary of the General Assembly’s adopting Dresser’s masterpiece, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” as the state song.

And, of course, Dresser’s talents touch the many activities planned for the 2013 Year of the River celebration, which continues through December.

Tedi hopes the June show, the sculpture project and other festivities tell his story to 21st-century folks.

“It’s great, because through the years a lot of the focus has been on the other brother, Theodore,” she said by telephone Wednesday from the Godards’ home in Costa Mesa, Calif. Theodore Dreiser penned the classic novels “Sister Carrie” and “An American Tragedy,” and lived until 1945 — 39 years after his older brother died and long after Paul’s Tin Pan Alley gems such as “On the Banks” and “My Gal Sal” were sung from coast to coast.

Tedi’s family never forgot Dresser, though.

Her grandfather, Edward Dreiser, was the youngest brother of Paul (who changed his stage name from Dreiser to Dresser) and Theodore. An actor on Broadway, Edward shared a family trait with Paul, Tedi explained. “He had the perennial twinkle in his eye,” she said of Edward. And, like Edward, Paul “was a very gregarious man,” she added.

By contrast, Theodore was “very insecure and shy, withdrawn and didn’t think he was well-liked,” Tedi said. But Theodore adored Paul and his fun-loving nature, just as her grandfather Edward did.

As a young girl, Godard heard those reflections from her grandfather, who died when she was 14. But Tedi, now 69, never knew her famous great-uncles. Her mother, Vera Dreiser, passed down their histories to Tedi. Vera, who lived from 1908 to 1998, earned degrees from New York University and Columbia University, wrote “My Uncle Theodore,” and became a psychotherapist, columnist and radio-and-TV personality. Tedi, her mother and her father, Alfred E. Scott, were New York natives, and Tedi’s theatrical background — with training at Julliard School of Music, among other venues — reflects that. But Paul’s roots in Terre Haute remained part of the family lore.

“Within the family, he certainly was [regarded as a star],” Tedi said.

She’s visited and performed in Terre Haute a couple of other times. In 1971, Tedi sang in Indiana State University’s Dreiser Hall to mark her great-uncle Theodore’s 100th birthday. Earlier this decade, she sang “On the Banks of the Wabash” and the national anthem for a Chamber of Commerce event. The June 6 show will be special. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for all of us to gather in Terre Haute and pay [Paul] homage,” she said.

“We try to bring him to life through the descriptions and Theodore’s words [from “My Brother, Paul”] and Paul’s music,” Tedi said of the performance. “I hope we succeed.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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