Weekly Burlesque: Interview with a Legend: Dixie Evans, Part Two

dixie4.jpgIn the second of a two-part series, burlesque columnist/dancer Jo Weldon finishes her conversation with legendary performer Dixie Evans, discussing raunchy innuendo, wailing saxophones, and The Burlesque Hall of Fame.

Make sure to read Part One if you missed it.

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. If you featured, you traveled a lot and had your own dressing room, and the locals and chorus girls hung together more. I usually didn’t get to know them well, but I did make friends. I still have friends that I 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 fourteen letters from young people saying they wanted to hear about mortal combat backstage! It wasn’t like that. I would say every once in a while 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. Girls would be fighting over songs — serious business — but not with me. I didn’t understand some of that fuss. Once you hit that stage, they’re thinking of you, not the last person who used that song.

Once [Margaret Sullivan] said to me, “Did you check out the basket on that new sax player?” … There’s always one or two [performers] that are totally raunchy, and I love that.

Tell me a little bit about the history of Exotic World/Burlesque Hall of Fame.
I got involved through Jennie Lee. 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 goat farm, and we’d do the reunions there. She died of breast cancer [in 1990]. 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. Being involved changed my life entirely. I 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, 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, signs, autographs, and photos from people who had collected a lot of them. They’d say, “I’ve had this in a shoebox for years!”

dixie5.jpgSome 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’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. 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’s original fans, Gypsy’s trunk, and lots of pasties, posters 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 ’til 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 are 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.

You can keep up with Dixie and what’s going on with the Burlesque Museum by visiting their MySpace page: www.myspace.com/exoticworld

– Jo Weldon

Jo Weldon is Headmistress of the award-winning New York School of Burlesque and is a regular burlesque performer. Visit burlesquedaily.blogspot.com to read her daily blog.

Image credits: Java’s Bachelor Pad (first) and Tanja Tiziana (second)