Book Review: Author tells all about Boise entertainer Della Pringle

“You all know Della Pringle. If you don’t you haven’t lived in Idaho very long. Della is not a fly-by-night — here today and gone tomorrow. She is a real Idaho institution.”

Although this statement might cause today’s Idaho Statesman readers to scratch their heads, readers of the March 24, 1924, issue in which the quote originally appeared would have understood it well.

With his biography “Jolly Della Pringle: Star of the Western Stage,” Boise State Professor Emeritus Charles Lauterbach puts Della back on center stage for the Treasure Valley after nearly 100 years. Following his 2013 book “Pioneer Theatre in the Boise Basin: 1863-1899,” Lauterbach again does our region a great service with his research into long-forgotten aspects of the entertainment business in Boise and the American West. Lauterbach points out that his is the first “comprehensive work” to be devoted to Della, adding, “It is too good a story not to be told.” He’s right. And he tells it well.

Della Pringle was born in Missouri in 1870 and by the age of 26 was the head of her own traveling repertory theater company. Although she lacked formal training, Della’s talent, charisma and business savvy earned her success as a producer, director and performer in the “ten-twent-thirt” theatrical tradition popular in the late 19th and early 20th century United States. A reference to the 10-, 20-, and 30-cent admission prices typically charged, these traveling companies performed low-royalty dramas and farces among the smaller cities and towns often missed by larger companies featuring major stars. Knowing her niche well, Della made a name for herself and enjoyed years of considerable wealth. By the time she first performed in Boise in 1902, she arrived aboard her own Pullman railroad car that carried a company of actors, musicians and her acclaimed scenery and wardrobe.

Della’s productions took her from coast to coast, with a focus on the country west of the Mississippi. In 1908 at age 38, Della chose the Treasure Valley as her home base. She owned an 80-acre ranch in Meridian, a house in the North End and a boarding house — the Palantine — at 12th and Main streets.

Della was a regular feature in the Idaho Statesman in the first half of the 20th century — as an actress and later as an active community member and local personality. Lauterbach’s research relied on mining archival issues of the Statesman and other newspapers from the towns and cities where Della performed. From these articles and reviews, Lauterbach re-creates Della’s story, retracing her travels, performances and activities in detail.

As is often the case in show business, the glamor and the fame faded and Della’s financial luck ran out with the growing popularity of moving pictures. When she died in Boise in 1952, she was poor and alone after five marriages ended in divorce, yet her vibrant life and contributions to our community and the theatrical world are a worthy and fascinating read.

And so it is fitting to once again share news of Della in the same paper that helped her become famous throughout Idaho. With Lauterbach’s passion for his subject, it’s impossible not to be engaged in Della’s whirlwind life that leads her right to our own backyard.

Lauterbach’s book reacquaints the region with a local celebrity who once received show-stopping applause when she stepped onto Boise’s stages, putting Jolly Della — an “Idaho institution” — in the spotlight where she belongs.

Gwyn Hervochon is an archivist and librarian in Special Collections and Archives at Boise State University’s Albertsons Library.