Dixie Evans, the dancer known as “the Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque”, who has died aged 86, thrilled post-war America with her scantily-clad impression of the film star; in later life she ran a museum of exotic dancing in the Mojave Desert.
Dixie Evans had no outstanding talent as a dancer or singer. But this did not discourage Harold Minsky, adopted son of the American burlesque impresario Abraham Minksy, who spotted her at a Minsky’s club in New Jersey in 1952 . “They’ll recognise the big name,” he told her, “and we’ll put the 'of Burlesque’ in small letters.”
Soon, Dixie Evans became a Marilyn Monroe devotee. Every film release saw her first in the queue, seeking inspiration for her next big number. She draped herself over a producer’s chair wearing only a G-string as the band played You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby; waltzed across the stage with a dummy of Laurence Olivier in tribute to The Prince and the Showgirl (1957); and sang You Made Me Love You to a photograph of Elvis Presley. In 1958 Marilyn Monroe threatened her with a lawsuit, but the dispute was resolved without going to court after Dixie agreed to restructure her act.
By that time Dixie Evans was a bona fide star of the burlesque circuit, with headline billing wherever she went. Frank Sinatra attended one of her shows and became an admirer. In the wake of his divorce from the real Marilyn, Joe DiMaggio asked to see Dixie, and she gave him a private performance of the number that satirised the pair’s relationship. “Why shouldn’t I cry,” ran the lyrics. “Joe, you walked out and left me flat/ So now you’re gone and I’m all alone/ Thank heavens you left your bat.”
She was born Mary Lee Evans in Long Beach, California, on August 26 1926, and her family background was one of some standing. Her mother Annie (née Wrennette Le Grand) was a descendant of Robert Morris, a signatory of the American Declaration of Independence; her father, Roy, worked in the oil industry. He died in an accident when Mary was 11, and she began working in her teenage years to support the family, taking jobs at a hospital and an Army base .
After leaving school at 16 she enrolled in dance lessons and joined chorus lines in performing tours , ending up in San Francisco with no money to get home . There she discovered the burlesque nightclub scene, and the financial incentives it presented: wages for striptease dancers were four times her own.
After several shows in California she moved to Newark, where Harold Minsky had just converted a downtown concert hall into a burlesque theatre. For more than a decade she made her base at Place Pigalle in Miami Beach, appearing in nightly shows there for six years. A plane towed a banner emblazoned with her headline across the beach four times a day.
In 1962, however, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her home, and Dixie Evans’s prospects seemed to crumble. Depressed and disillusioned, she made an unsuccessful attempt to restyle herself “The Sensational Dixie Evans” before moving to Bimini in the Bahamas, where a friend found her a job in a hotel. When that ran its course she returned to California and became a nurse’s aide.
All this time she had kept in touch with several women from her performing days, who gathered for an annual reunion at a remote desert ranch in Helendale, California. These reunions were organised by Jennie Lee (née Virginia Lee Hicks) who had made her name as “The Bazoom Girl” for her skill in twirling the tassels attached to her pasties — patches to cover a dancer’s nipples — at high speed; she was also an avid collector of burlesque memorabilia, most of which furnished her nightclub, the Sassy Lassie.
Following Jennie’s death from cancer in 1990, Dixie decided that the responsibility now fell on her to “keep burlesque alive”. She moved into the ranch and began assembling displays of pasties, G-strings, costumes and posters. There was a decorative urn containing the ashes of the burlesque performer Sherry Champagne, and a Strippers Hall of Fame. The collection became Exotic World, billed as “the only Burlesque Historical Society in the world”.
In order to fund the project, Dixie Evans launched the Miss Exotic World Pageant, inviting female performers aged 18 to 92 to compete for the title. Originally based in the grounds of the Exotic World Museum, in 2006 both the competition and the bulk of the collection transferred to Las Vegas. Dixie Evans continued to live in Helendale until she suffered a stroke earlier this year, when she moved into residential care.
Hailed by her admirers as the “godmother” of burlesque, she was scathing about modern strip routines. She had little regard for lap-dancers who “just take their clothes off. That has no purpose. It has to be done with rhyme and reason.” Nor would she entertain criticism of her profession from outsiders, saying: “I would never want to have their boring job anyway.”
Dixie Evans married, in 1963, Harry Braelow, a prizefighter. The marriage was dissolved.
Dixie Evans, born August 26 1926, died August 3 2013