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King City pianist sang and danced in vaudeville and movies

Muriel Dresser had a career that others only dream about
by: Barbara Sherman HAVE PIANO, WILL PERFORM — Muriel Dresser was as much at home performing on movie and television sets and on USO and vaudeville stages as she is in her living room.

When Muriel Dresser sits down at a piano, magic happens.

"I can't read music," said the King City resident. "Sheet music is boring. But I hear a song, and I can just play it, and I like to experiment with sound. I hear harmonies in my heads, and I hear the subtleties and variations."

Muriel, who had quite a stage and movie career, can now be heard playing the piano at meetings of the King City Music Club.

"We are so lucky to have our very own professional-level pianist, who thoroughly enjoys accompanying the eager voices of King City in their moments in the sun," said Marlana Lytehaause, music club president. "She knows just about any song you've ever heard, and if she doesn't know it, she can still play it. She plays completely by ear, in virtually any key, at the drop of a hat.

"We truly enjoy her gentle spirit, her golden laugh and her giving heart. During any open mic session, you will find Muriel at the piano, quietly and confidently supporting many of the singers and their styles ranging from country to show tunes. She also meets with vocalists in private sessions to practice for their upcoming performances."

And if being a piano virtuoso isn't enough, Muriel also is a talented singer in her own right.

"Muriel often accompanies her own rich and sultry voice as she sings powerful songs, brimming with genuine emotion, often leaving her audience in awe," Lytehaause added. "As she graciously accepts the many compliments from those around her, she remains humble and says with a delicate shrug, 'It's a gift.'"

Born in Manhattan, Muriel had a sister, Lolita, who was one year older, "and our mother suspected we had a flair for music," she said.

Mom Tana was a talented dancer herself, and dad Manuel Tovar was an oil painter and classical violinist, so producing two musically talented daughters must not have been a surprise.

Muriel and her sister were sent to the Dance Forum at Carnegie Hall, where they became experts at flamenco dancing.

"I loved it," Muriel said. "When I was 9 or 10, my mom and my sister and I moved to Hollywood, and we were represented by the William Morris Agency and danced in movies."

One was "Moonlight and Cactus," a Western romance with the Andrews Sisters, and in Muriel's photo album that covers her long and varied career is a photograph of a lush set created for the movie. A year later, the sisters appeared in "Bombalera," a Latin-American musical short.

Despite film appearances, Muriel said, "The real focus of my life was piano. I begged for a piano when I was 10 years old. I knew I could play. Mom finally consented and for $10 got an old, abused piano for sale in a church courtyard.

"I sat down and played Rachminoff's second piano concerto. My mom fainted dead away on the floor from shock. When she came to, I vividly remember saying, 'I knew I could play it… - it's a gift from God.'"

Muriel stayed involved with music in her teens, "and my mom bought me a better piano," she said. "I went to a piano teacher for lessons, and she said, 'I don't want to teach you - just play.'"

The "Dancing Tovar Sisters," as they were called, did television commercials and then got a gig performing for several years in the "Borscht Capades," an ethically slanted variety show that went on tour around the eastern U.S.

"It was similar to vaudeville, and we were joined by our younger brother Conrad and our mom," Muriel said.

When the Korean War was being fought, the USO invited the Tovar Sisters to perform in its shows that included Red Skelton and Danny Kaye, and the troupe flew around the country on B-36 bombers.

When the sisters were in their late teens, Muriel's sister got married, and "that broke up the act," she said. Muriel "retired" from show biz at age 18 to just be a normal person, first working as a switchboard operator and later at the Diamond Exchange.

In 1960, Muriel got married and had three children in four years; in her "spare" time, she played piano for music programs in the Los Angeles school district.

"I was busy as a mom, and I enjoyed my children," Muriel said. But by the early 1970s, she was ready to perform again and appeared in various Los Angeles nightclubs where she sang jazz and ballads.

In 1978 Muriel came to Oregon to visit friends who had been neighbors in California. "It became green and lush as we approached Oregon from California," she said. "The greenery swept me away. I realized how brown California is. I went back and said to the kids, 'We're moving to Oregon,' and we moved to Garden Home."

As Muriel's 60th birthday approached, her daughter told her to ditch her old four-door car "for something foxy."

Muriel dutifully went to Olinger Lincoln-Mercury in Beaverton, and she got more than a new car: She married the sales manager, Bud Dresser.

"We've been married 16 years," Muriel said. "I wasn't looking to get married again. I was busy, I was singing and dancing, and I had a cute condo."

After they married, and he retired, the couple decided to move to Yamhill County and raise Westlund terriers, which had been Bud's dream.

"The little church in Wilhelmina needed a pianist, and I said that I didn't know any hymns," Muriel said. "But a nice Jewish girl became a church pianist. I was used to being paid for my performances, and I didn't make any money doing this, but it was the best thing I ever did.

"They had been looking for a pianist for a year, and I ended up leading the music worship team."

For 10 years, the Dressers enjoyed the country lifestyle until in May 2010, Muriel had a stroke.

"Bud decided we should be closer to our kids," said Muriel, noting that she and Bud each have three grandchildren. "We chose King City because it just fit. It was a good fit and near the children."

A few months ago, Muriel saw a notice in the King City Civic Association newsletter about the music club needing a pianist, and she didn't need to think twice about it.

"I clearly welcomed the opportunity to play music," she said and reports for "duty" every Monday from 1 to 4 p.m.

Muriel insists she is not a piano soloist, but on the other hand, she conceded that "it takes a certain ability to accompany a singer and enhance the performance."

She added, "I can't play the melody because that fights with the singer. I play phrases and chords that allow the soloist to shine. You can't just bang out the melody."

People who have not yet checked out the King City Music Club can drop by the Clubhouse any Monday between 1 and 4 p.m., when activities are going on.