By Janelle Smith // Burlyqnell
I always think of Dixie Evans this time of year. August brings both her birthday and the anniversary of her death, and Labor Day always reminds me of one of my favorite items in my collection of burlesque memorabilia. It is a photo of an 18-year-old, dungaree-clad Dixie, long before the burlesque fame, repairing the landing gear on a WWII airplane in true Rosie the Riveter style. I purchased the photo from Dixie shortly before she passed away. It is precious because she not only took the time to sign the photo, but also wrote a detailed note of the back explaining her job at Mitner Field, a flight training facility. I never met Dixie, but I cherish this photo which gives a little more insight into the life of a woman who would become a true legend of burlesque.
Dixie was born Mary Lee Evans 28 August 1926 in Long Beach, California to parents Roy and Annie Evans. She always thought Mary was a boring name and preferred to go by Dixie, her grandmother’s name. When Dixie was 11, her father died in a work-related accident in the California oil fields, and her mother never quite recovered from the loss. Dixie worked odd jobs to help support her mother and sister and eventually left school at 16. She worked in a hospital, picked celery, and eventually landed the job at Minter Field, but secretly she dreamed of being a Hollywood starlet. Bitten by the show-biz bug, Dixie took dance lessons and modelled in her spare time. Dixie did some early “nudie cutie” modelling, including a session at Hollywood writer and producer Jack McDermott’s famed Spider Pool. Knowing her religious mother would not approve, Dixie told her she was modelling for the Sears catalog.
In the early 1940s Dixie answered an ad looking for chorus girls. Her dancing lessons paid off, and she was not only hired, but eventually worked at Los Angeles’s famed Follies Theater and was mentored by Lillian Hunt. Soon after, Dixie moved to Newark, NJ, to perform in Harold Minsky’s Empire theater. It was Harold that noticed Dixie’s resemblance to movie star Marilyn Monroe and suggested she play that aspect up, including putting “Marilyn Monroe” on the marquee, with “of burlesque” in much smaller letters. Dixie always loved movie stars, especially Marilyn, and she soon had Marilyn’s trademark breathy voice and mannerism down perfectly. The Marilyn impression, combined with Hollywood inspired acts, was a big draw and Dixie was soon a top name in burlesque. Dixie closely followed Marilyn’s career and developed new acts to coincide with Marilyn’s new films. Often called “The Working Man’s Marilyn”, Dixie often quipped, “If you could not meet the real Marilyn, you could come to the burlesque show and meet me…and I’ll take more off.” The gimmick was such a success that Dixie went on to headline Place Pigalle in Miami Beach off and on for a decade. Respectfully, Dixie retired her Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque act when Marilyn died 4 August 1962. She continued to perform as The Sensational Dixie Evans, but it was time for something new, as burlesque was changing.
For a while, Dixie worked as the manager of entertainment at a resort in Alice Town, Bimini (Bahamas), but when that gig ended, she returned to California. Dixie was soon back in contact with her friend Jennie Lee, another burlesque dancer who performed as the Bazoon Girl, capitalizing on her large bust and tassel twirling talents. In 1955, Jennie started the Exotic Dancers’ League, a union to protect the rights of burlesque performers. As years passed, the group became more of a social club, with Jennie hosting yearly reunions for dancers. Jennie Lee dreamed of starting a compound which would be part retirement facility for burlesque performers and part burlesque museum to preserve the history. Jennie had always been an avid collector and had amassed photos, props, and costumes from dancers she had worked with throughout her career. Eventually, Jennie and her husband purchased a deserted goat farm in Helendale, CA and envisioned a place for performers to retire, a museum to exhibit her collection and a place to hold the still yearly Exotic Dancers’ League reunions. Jennie died of cancer before her dream could come to fruition, but Dixie, who had nursed her friend through her last days, took over the helm of what was then Exotic World.
Unfortunately, a remotely located museum, dedicated to the art of striptease, was not flourishing, so Dixie pulled a page from Harold Minsky’s publicity playbook. In 1991, to drum up press coverage and attendance, Dixie hosted a striptease competition in combination with the Exotic Dancers’ League reunion. This brought together legends from burlesque’s heyday, and a new era of modern performers who competed for the title of Miss Exotic World. The event was a huge success and annually drew visitors and press to Exotic World. However, poor conditions at the farm and a desire to bring burlesque history to more people, led to the collection being moved to Las Vegas to form the Burlesque Hall of Fame, which still hosts an annual Miss Exotic World competition and reunion.
Due to Dixie’s unwavering support of a new generation of performers and her efforts to preserve the history of the American art form she so dearly loved, the once “Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque” became known as the “Godmother of Burlesque”. Sadly, Dixie Evans passed away 3 August 2013, just before her 87th birthday. Dixie always brought people together and to honor her, the international burlesque community banded together and hosted Dixie Evans’ Week, a week-long event that featured burlesque shows and classes. The funds raised allowed the Godmother of Burlesque to be laid to rest in the same cemetery as her beloved idol, Marilyn Monroe.
All photos courtesy of Janelle Smith