Dixie Evans (AP Photo / Dixie Evans Collection)
Dixie Evans was a legendary burlesque performer whose stage act drew illustrious fans like Frank Sinatra. But she was more than a sexy dancer with a strut and a bump. She was a historian and advocate whose passion for her craft inspired a new generation of performers and earned her the nickname "Godmother of Burlesque."
"I honestly think Dixie is the person who is single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of burlesque," said Angie Pontani, a New York-based burlesque performer. "She kept the flame alive. Her legacy is all the performers on stage today."
Evans, who died Aug. 3, 2013, at age 86, shared her skills and stories with countless visitors who journeyed to her Exotic World Museum in California's Mohave Desert, later renamed the Burlesque Hall of Fame and moved to Las Vegas. Dressed in full regalia – from hair and make-up to slinky dress – Evans shared burlesque treasures including Sally Rand's feather fan and Gypsy Rose Lee's travel trunk with museum visitors.
For wannabe burlesque dancers, a trip to the museum was almost a pilgrimage, Pontani said
"If you're a painter and go to the Met, they don't sit you down and say, 'Let me show you how to paint,'" said Dustin Wax, executive director of the Hall of Fame. "But the way Dixie encouraged young dancers was an inspiration. She really opened herself up to this whole generation and taught them not just how they used to do it, but the attitude and spirit that they were looking for."
Dixie Evans at Miss Exotic World, 2006
(Wikimedia Commons / Michael Albov)
Evans was a headline act at burlesque houses around the country in the 1940s and '50s, the so-called Golden Age of Burlesque. Her resemblance to Marilyn Monroe prompted one show promoter to dub her "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque." The name stuck, and Evans incorporated skits about Monroe's life and parodies of Monroe's movies into her act. Even in her 80s, Evans would "drop into Marilyn Monroe at the drop of a hat," Wax said.
A natural storyteller, Evans stressed the tease and humor in her performances. One of her better-known acts featured a casting couch. In a 2011 interview with the Las Vegas Sun she talked about how hard she'd worked on the routine, joking, "I really gave that couch a workout."
"Her acts were very narrative. For Dixie, they were like little plays," said Lynn Sally, Evans' biographer and a professor at New York University. "She was telling a story."
The reveal at the end of the show wasn't just about showing off one's body; it was a punchline or a political statement, Sally noted. And what happened before that mattered a lot, Evans told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2007. "It wasn't about taking your clothes off. It was the way you took them off."
A job in burlesque was a chance for a working class woman to move beyond a job in a factory or a department store, two of the most popular options at the time, Sally said. It allowed them to travel and make their own rules.
"They came up with their own acts. There was no producer telling them, 'Here's your song. Here's your costume,'" Sally said. "It's a self-authored performance medium and that was attractive for independent woman."
According to her obituary in the New York Times, Evans' celebrity fans included Walter Cronkite, Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio, who reportedly sought solace from Evans' act after his 1954 divorce from Monroe.
Monroe's death in 1962 was a blow to Evans, who briefly performed a Monroe tribute act before taking a break from the stage, Sally said.
After a few years living and working in the Bahamas, Evans returned to the United States, where former burlesque dancer Jennie Lee told her about her dream of creating a museum dedicated to burlesque. After Lee's death in 1990, Evans followed through on her friend's plans.
The Exotic World Museum was housed on a dusty farm off Route 66 in the Mojave Desert. A sign out front instructed visitors to honk three times for a tour. To draw more attention to the museum, Evans started the Miss Exotic World pageant in 1991. It's still going strong.
"Burlesque is a theatrical art form, uniquely American, and Dixie wanted that history preserved and passed on," said Pontani, who won the pageant in 2008.
The museum was moved to Las Vegas in 2010 and its name was changed to the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Evans maintained her role as tour guide and talent scout extraordinaire.
On one visit to Las Vegas, Pontani was unloading groceries from the car and Evans noticed her shapely posterior. "She said, 'Angie, your behind is amazing! You need to use that in your act more!' She was always thinking about putting on a show. She lived burlesque," Pontani said.
Sally is among a group of Evans' fans working to raise money to pay off the late star's medical bills and to finance a monument at Westwood Village Memorial Park, where Monroe is at rest.
"It sounds so cheesy and trite but (Evans' legacy) would be, 'Follow your heart. Dedicate every day to living fully and doing something you love," Sally said. "She used to say, 'I wouldn't have traded my life for the world.'"
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."