I visited with Dixie Evans in June of this year. It was the first time I’d gotten to see her since her stroke. She was in a very comfortable recovery center, in a house rather than a facility. When I arrived she was asleep in a recliner, wearing a spangled feathered headband. The moment she woke up, she was eager for company.
Her right side was paralyzed and her speech was affected by the damage the stroke had done to her face, but her eyes were the same as ever–bright, smart, friendly, and, above all, interested.
I talked to her about traveling the world and teaching burlesque to new students and performers. “They love hearing about you,” I told her. “They love hearing about the reunions and the pageant, and they love hearing about the history of burlesque. They love learning how to do old-school bump n grind.” She smiled, pleased, and said, “Make sure they learn how to do it their own way, too.”
Dixie loved the innovations of new burlesquers. She loved all the styles people brought to the stage, and she loved for people to find burlesque history exciting without a need to simply recreate it.
I always loved the way Dixie managed to make history vivid and juicy and sexy and important, yet always lived for the present. It has been an example of how to make every day as exciting as the one before, and the inspiration for my mission as an instructor for the past ten years.
Dixie changed my life, and the lives of so many people around me. She lit up everyone she met.
This interview took place in 2007.
I love talking with Dixie Evans. She is one of the friendliest, most gracious, most open-hearted people in the world, and one of the most open-minded as well. If you already know all about her, you’ll enjoy the stories she tells in this interview; if you’re not familiar with her, you’ll find a new hero.
When did you get into burlesque?
I was in chorus lines in Hollywood in other types of shows before I got into burlesque, in the late 1940s. I was a page too, that’s a showgirl who walks with the curtain as it opens ad then you thrust your hands open as the star steps forward. I had just worked on a show that closed in two weeks. I was hanging out on the steps of a club and the club manager came out and asked me if I could cut my act short and mix with the audience a little more, and I said, “I don’t work here!” and got up to leave. He followed me down the street and offered me a job interview. I met with the boss at a Chinese restaurant and he was shaking his fork at me, noodles flying everywhere, and offered me a job. They made costumes for me and everything. This was 1950, 51, I believe.
How did you come up with your stage name?
Oh, my name is Mary Lee Evans. My grandmother’s name was Dixie. I always thought Mary was too bland and so I changed it in third or fourth grade. I was born in Long Beach, California and raised in Hollywood, but I always heard a lot about my grandmother and grandfather in the south, in the Confederacy. Although magazines have referred to me as a Southern girl, the only time I spent in the south was in Burlesque, in New Orleans and Miami.
What were your acts like?
When I was at the Minsky’s in Newark, New Jersey, Mr. Minsky came into my dressing room and said, “You look like Marilyn Monroe, so I’m going to call you the Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque. I said, “Mr. Minsky, everybody in Hollywood looks like Marilyn Monroe!” But he was insistent, because the trade in Miami Beach was tourist, and he said, “They’ll recognize the big name, and we’ll put the ‘of Burlesque’ in small letters.” I had been doing a little Hollywood number, so I just started reworking the act and talking like Marilyn and take everything off as if it might be Marilyn’s style. He came running backstage and said, “I didn’t expect you to do it the next show!” and he laughed. From then on every motion pic Marilyn did I would be first in line, see it once, run to the dime store, and whatever I could get together to make it like the movie I’d put into a number.
I’d do a little bit of a scene from each movie. For “The Prince and the Showgirl” I had a life-size dummy dressed like Sir Laurence Olivier in the film, and I used it as a puppet and danced with it across the stage to “I Could have Danced All Night.” I always worked in a bit to get on the couch and take off stockings. I had a red one for the casting couch and purple for the prince. I would lay that dummy down and act like I was getting it on with the dummy–and I’d take off the medallion like in the movie. I had an act where I was a girl in love with Elvis, and at the end of it I’d tell a story about how I fell asleep in a theater after one of his shows and got spanked for staying out all night–I’d pull up my dress and rub my hand over my keister like I’d just been spanked. But mostly I did Marilyn. A banner featuring my name attached to an airplane flew over four times a day over the beach, with my tagline, “Dixie Evans the Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque,” and it was a huge tourist attraction. One time Frank Sinatra saw the banner and mentioned it to Joe DiMaggio, and he came to see me and I went out with him. I went out with Frank too. But in the beginning I was a just honky tonk stripper from San Francisco!
Where did you perform most?
I performed in St Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, and Austin. However, I performed in Miami Beach for six years without a day off, and that’s really where I perfected my acts. I worked at The Place Pigalle.
What is your fondest memory?
I loved playing in Buffalo at the Palace because I loved to write home “I’m Playing the Palace!” It sounded so grand. I loved how in almost every city, no matter how small the city, there was a local restaurant where the burlesque girls and comedians were welcome for a free drink or dinner. In Newark Captain Joe’s Lobster House sent a note to me at the theater to come get a free lobster dinner. I loved traveling in burlesque–where else would I have gotten to see all those cities?
Any scandalous moments?
Every night in show business there’s something scandalous! I’m trying to pick out one. This isn’t exactly a scandalous moment, but I love this memory. There was one dancer, Busty Russell, with a natural 72 inch bust. We were coming out of the theater at about midnight walking down the street under fairly bright street lights. She had this tight black skirt with white sweater, and a car ran up on the sidewalk and had a little fender bender. A girl just jumped out of the car and said, “That car was our wedding present!” and Busty said, “I couldn’t help it.” Police came and she had to keep saying, “Officer, I couldn’t help it,” because the young woman was saying it’s her fault, look at her! I wanted to say, “Officer, it’s not her fault she’s built that way, it’s an act of God!” Busty could walk in anyplace, even a restaurant and the place would get quiet. She’d really grandstand with those boobs. She said, “In Europe we don’t have all this whistling on the street”–she was very amused by it.
When did you start to see an end to burlesque as you knew it?
What people don’t realize is that burlesque is an American tradition and before television, burlesque held sway! During the 30s there was nothing to laugh about, and at a burlesque show, they could smile and laugh. It wasn’t all strippers. There would also be 40 girls marching across the stage and a belly dancer, comedians and straight men, a regular show with big productions and finales. When people went out of that theater they could breathe again. It was like as shot in the arm for them. They couldn’t afford anything else! Burlesque is a real, important part of our culture. Think about it–in 1941 Mickey Rooney was the wealthiest and highest paid performer in the country, outdoing Clark Gable and Erroll Flynn, and his Father Joey Ewell was a burlesque comedian who got a contract from Cecil B DeMille. Burlesque was alive and well and doing really good in the 40s, and every city had a burlesque theater. People who couldn’t afford an expensive show could go to a burlesque show. But when television started to take over in the 1950s, that’s when burlesque died down. Tempest and I, we were sort of ostracized for being in burlesque. The comedians were accepted readily into the motion picture industry and the striptease dancers weren’t.
Did you have close friends in burlesque, and do you still have them?
For some reason I really got along great with all the girls, and I don’t remember having any friction with any of them. If you featured you traveled a lot and had your own dressing room, and the locals and chorus girls hung together more, so I usually didn’t get to know them well, but I did make friends. I’ve still got friends that I still write to from way back. I would say it was a very wonderful comaraderie among the women. There may have been more conflict in the big eastern theaters. When I lost my scrapbook in Miami Beach I put an ad out to help me find it, and I got 14 letters from young people saying they wanted to hear about mortal combat backstage! It wasn’t like that. I would say every once in awhile there would be two redheads or two very famous dancers and we’d expect conflict because of what they had in common. Sometimes at 9 am we’d be downstairs for rehearsal with the piano player and girls would argue over who used harlem nocturne; I say they fought about music the most. I used songs like “Hooray for Hollywood” and “You Oughta be in Pictures,” so I didn’t have those conflicts. My songs were tailored to my acts. So girls would be fighting over songs, serious business, but not with me. I didn’t understand some of that fuss. You know, once you hit that stage they’re thinking of you, not the last person who used that song.
Tell me a little bit about the history of Exotic World/Burlesque Hall of Fame.
I got involved through Jennie Lee, as you know. I had known her off and on through working with her. After our burlesque careers, she had a little bar called Sassy Lassie in San Pedro, and a lot of us girls would go down there in middle of June and have a reunion. She printed up little cards for us. It was mostly us older ones who lived in the LA area. Her husband Charlie was a bartender and they’d work together. During the last part of her life they moved to the Mojave on an old ggoat farm, and we’d do the reunions there. She died of breast cancer. Sometime afterward Charlie called me up and said that the girls from the reunions were calling. I never got into Jennie’s business but I knew that before she died she was still trying to do articles for magazines and keep track of everybody. I was the only one of her old friends around who was able to quit my job and run out there. I was taking care of elderly people for a living, which was very profitable, but I quit my job to go out there. The lady I worked for had a big Chrysler and I wrote her a check for that car and took the car to the ranch. Being involved changed my life entirely. I had always had the hankering to have a little place to hang my memories, and I knew that the industry I was in was worthy of attention.
When I saw what Jennie had started to do, collecting the memorabilia and costumes, plus and things from the reunions, I picked up that trail, and it took off. By writing to a lot of fans all of a sudden items started to come in the mail, like programs for shows and signs and autographs and photos from some people who had also collected a lot of them. They’d say, “I’ve had this in a shoebox for years!” Some things I paid for, like Gypsy Rose Lee’s trunk and so on, but people were willing to work with it and they knew why I wanted it and what I was doing. A lot of people have huge collections but haven’t opened them to the public. I guess I was the first one to make it available like that. Things came, and then the girls came, and I’m so blessed with all the honor of this. Here I am 81 years old, wending my way! I’m grateful and honored that I was able to come out with no income and do this thing. It really was the faith I had when I was doing it. I knew I could do it. And I’m so happy to leave it in the hands of girls like yourself that are interested in this American tradition.
What is happening with the museum now?
A couple of years ago we had to leave the old farm, and we came to Las Vegas. Luke and Laura are working really hard for the museum and getting local people involved. Local people are interested in helping us, and lots of the people are all Las Vegas born and raised. The mayor is totally flamboyant and very supportive. He shows up with two showgirls everywhere instead of the secret service!
What I look forward to next is having a permanent location. Right now we have a temporary location at Atomic Todd’s. We had a great opening this month with 150 people in the Museum. We have items there like Sally Rand’ original fans, the trunk of Gypsy’s, lots of pasties, and poster and playbills. I loved having the pageant in Vegas. This year I loved Fremont Street with the World’s Longest Boa, and oh, all the people there for the pageant spilling out of the elevators, wonderful!
What else would you like to add to the museum experience?
I have a list of fun facts about burlesque as well as a list of music I like to give out. Tunes like St James Infirmary, the Mooch, that kind of raunchy music that really makes you move. When those saxophones wail it’s the music that drives us on. We’d hear that and work like crazy and not want to stop. In San Francisco I worked with Margaret Sullivan, who strutted with that gorgeous burlesque swagger. She’d say to the band, “Drop it to a solid four and drive me home!” and that sounded so great to me! I could hardly wait till I could get to a theater and say that, I thought it was so raunchy and cool. Once she said to me, “Did you check out the basket on that new sax player?” It took me a minute to catch what she meant. There’s always one or two around that’s totally raunchy, and I love that.
Anything you want to say to the newest performers?
People always thank me for what I’m doing, but I have to thank them for keeping this alive. I don’t put down the girls that work in porn or on poles, but for girls that want to express a little more story or something cute or funny, this is their opportunity. I’m happy for all the groups that have cropped up all over the country. By teaching and sharing secrets they are helping to keep it alive. And just think of our girls going to France! I’m so happy for them.
Jo ‘Boobs’ Weldon.