Obituary: Dixie Evans / Burlesque performer who echoed Marilyn Monroe

Aug. 28, 1926 - Aug. 3, 2013

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Dixie Evans, a popular stage performer billed as the "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque" -- the first two words in very large letters and the last two in very small ones -- died Aug. 3 in Las Vegas. She was 86.

Her death was announced on the website of the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, of which she was a former curator and director.

Ms. Evans was a marquee name at midcentury, mentioned in the same avid breath as Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand and Lili St. Cyr. In later years, she was featured in newspaper articles and television programs about burlesque and appeared in the 2010 documentary "Behind the Burly Q."

She was profiled in the 1996 book "Holding On: Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics, and Other American Heroes," by David Isay, with photographs by Harvey Wang.

Reflecting on her unlikely stardom in a 1992 interview with CNN, Ms. Evans said, "I was not that talented and I wasn't that pretty."

But her close-enough resemblance to Monroe -- enhanced by a peroxide blond coiffure and the uncanny ability of Ms. Evans, who never met her subject, to mimic her speech and shimmy -- ensured her success as a locus of transference.

"If you couldn't meet the real Marilyn," Ms. Evans told The New York Times in 1998, "you could come to the burlesque and meet me."

Night after night from the early '50s onward, at burlesque houses around the country, Ms. Evans took the stage in Monrovian garb and swung into musical numbers that recalled those in Monroe's films. Unlike Monroe, she ended the numbers far more lightly attired than when she began.

She kept the act going for more than a decade, modifying it enough to mollify Monroe, who at one point threatened to sue. Wherever she played, she drew a devoted, even rarefied, following.

"Walter Cronkite used to come every year to see my act," Ms. Evans told The Los Angeles Times in 1993.

Frank Sinatra was said to be a fan. So, too, was Joe DiMaggio, who was reported to have visited the show for consolation after his divorce from Monroe in 1954.

Then, in 1962, Monroe's suicide rendered the act obsolete overnight. As Ms. Evans told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2002, "When she died, I died."

She held a string of jobs before an abandoned goat ranch in a dusty Western town afforded her an improbable return to burlesque's glittering glory.

Mary Lee Evans was born Aug. 28, 1926, in Long Beach, Calif., to a well-to-do family. Her father, an oilman, died when she was a girl, and the family fortunes declined precipitously. Young Mary worked in the celery fields and during World War II was an airplane mechanic.

Dreaming of stardom, she began her stage career as a chorus girl in touring musicals. One night, in her late teens or early 20s, she found herself stranded in San Francisco between jobs with 50 cents in her pocket. She discovered that the local burlesque theater paid four times what she had been earning.

A few years later, when Ms. Evans was performing at a Minsky's burlesque house in Newark, Harold Minsky, the son of the impresario Abraham Minsky, transformed her into Marilyn.

In the late 1980s, Ms. Evans learned that her friend Jennie Lee, a retired burlesque star, was terminally ill with cancer. Lee, who was living on a former goat ranch in the desert in Helendale, Calif., had created a de facto museum there from her old memorabilia.

Ms. Evans moved in to help care for her, assuming responsibility for the collection after Lee's death in 1990. She expanded it into the Exotic World Burlesque Museum and Striptease Hall of Fame.

In 1991, Ms. Evans founded the Miss Exotic World pageant, an annual competition she liked to call the Olympics of burlesque.

In 2006, Ms. Evans moved the competition and the museum, now known as the Burlesque Hall of Fame, to Las Vegas, where she made her home from then on.

For years in the 1950s, Ms. Evans was a fixture at the Place Pigalle, a burlesque house in Miami Beach. One night, she was arrested.

"Whenever it was election time in Miami, they'd raid the strip joints," she told The Los Angeles Times in 2009. "I told the judge, 'Your Honor, this is the same act you saw at the policemen's show.' "

His Honor dropped the charges.

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