On a Thursday night in June, scores of arts patrons gather at The Apple Club of Terre Haute to honor a Wabash Valley native whom no one in the room will ever meet.
The man of the hour has been gone since 1906, but his cultural impact is still felt by many, in Terre Haute and beyond. He’s Paul Dresser, and at the turn of the twentieth century, he was among America’s best-known songwriters. The sheet music for his most popular song, On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away, landed on the desk stands of millions of families’ pianos. In its era, only Stephen Foster’s Swanee River outsold it. In 1913 it was named Indiana’s state song. A half century later, the house where he was born was moved from its neighborhood to Fairbanks Park along the Wabash River.
And now, after another half-century, an effort to construct a permanent monument to Paul Dresser has placed the spotlight on his final surviving descendants: Dresser’s grandniece, Tedi Dreiser Godard, and her son Paul Dreiser Andrews.
“Even though I’m the last in line,” says Andrews, “let’s just say I feel honored, privileged to be here. This is just one of my best days ever.”
On this day, Paul Dreiser Andrews’ role is that of technical director at The Apple Club. He’s there to make the couple on stage look and sound their best. The couple is his mother, Tedi, and his stepfather Joel Godard. She’s a Juilliard-trained singer and dancer whose stage work has ranged from Shakespeare to light opera to cabaret. He is a broadcast veteran whose voice was heard for years on NBC’s Dateline and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Together, Tedi and Joel Godard are performing A Song for Indiana, written by Tedi, drawing on the songs of Paul Dresser and vivid recollections from Dresser’s brother, the author Theodore Dreiser.
The performance is a benefit for ArtSpaces, an organization that has worked in the last six years to revitalize Terre Haute by placing more than a dozen sculptures around town. Mary Kramer is the executive director. She has been spearheading an effort, now about three-quarters complete, to raise $85,000 to erect a sculpture in Paul Dresser’s honor. ArtSpaces has staked out a space for it in Fairbanks Park, on the banks of the Wabash — a project, Kramer says, befitting not only Dresser’s legacy, but also this year’s community-wide initiative called “2013 Year of the River.”
“What’s happening right now,” says Kramer, “is a resurgence of interest in the river and caring for it and having it be a part of our lives, and just reconnecting with it as a city. So, the evening and the project really play a role in that and I think will be a long-lasting way that we stay connected to the river.”
ArtSpaces has issued an RFQ, or “request for qualifications”: a call for artists to design and build the Dresser sculpture. If recent history holds, then more than 100 entries will have arrived by the deadline this week. ArtSpaces expects to narrow the applicant list down to between three and five, then, after a round of interviews and proposals, choose an artist this fall, with an eye toward a public unveiling next summer. Kramer says the sculpture will be a destination site for posterity.
“That’s what artists want when they make work. They want the work to outlive them. And you don’t always know in your lifetime if that’s going to happen. I actually found myself thinking about what he would think of this evening, and I think he would have been very proud to know that his music is still around a hundred years later and still cherished by the state as a state song.”
Joel and Tedi Dreiser Godard say preparing for the evening’s presentation has immersed them in Dresser’s larger-than-life personality.
“Paul would have wanted to have a drink with everybody, you know,” says Joel Godard. “Probably would have bought drinks for the house!”
“His spirit lives on,” Tedi Dreiser Godard says. “It lives on in me and in Paul, and it lives on in Joel too. He’s been with us every step of the way.”
Dresser’s family and the Terre Haute arts community are working to ensure that visitors to the banks of the Wabash, from near or far away, can glimpse a bit of that spirit for generations to come.