08.20.134:45 AM ET

The Godmother of Burlesque

Once a performer of Marilyn Monroe burlesque, Dixie Evans started the Burlesque Hall of Fame—and gave the world an understanding of the importance of pasties and a saucy delivery. Caroline Linton on the life of an extraordinary performer.

After Marilyn Monroe’s death, there were some people in Florida who believed they saw her once again in a burlesque show in Miami.

It was Dixie Evans, who was known as the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque and had updated her performance constantly to reflect Marilyn’s latest movies, performances, and social life—there was an act to reflect her divorce from Joe DiMaggio, for instance. After Monroe’s suicide in 1962, Evans had been inconsolable—but she still rallied to create a tribute show for Monroe. She performed it first at Minsky’s burlesque house in Newark, New Jersey. The show had been so well received, she brought it down to Miami—only to be heckled. Even though she had been booked for a long stretch performing Marilyn shows, Evans created a whole new show to prevent her idol from being heckled on stage.

“I think Evans’s legacy is about dedicating to the life to the thing that you love and living for what you love, and that’s what she did,” said Evans’s biographer Lynn Sally, who is also a burlesque performer going by Dr. Lucky. “Her lifelong, tireless dedication to pursuing burlesque has been instrumental in providing our understanding of modern-day burlesque.”

Often called the godmother of burlesque and one of the people responsible for the burlesque revival in the 1990s and 2000s, Evans died August 3. She was 86. She had suffered a stroke in January that had left her paralyzed on her right side. She died of natural causes.

“Dixie was like no one else,” said Luke Littrell, a close friend and Evans’s caretaker. “She was a really special woman and she cared so deeply about burlesque and burlesque history. The main thing she wanted was to see burlesque’s revival and see the memory of burlesque and see everything that she and the other pioneer women did live on forever.”

As one of the great burlesque performers in the 1950s and ’60s, Evans started the Exotic World museum in 1990 after the death of her friend and fellow performer Jennie Lee, who had begun collecting memorabilia of burlesque. It was originally located in the middle of the California desert on Route 66, where visitors would honk three times at the gate, and Evans would come out and greet them before bringing them into the museum and giving them the tour. It was later renamed the Burlesque Hall of Fame and moved to Las Vegas—and contained fantastic memorabilia of the golden age of burlesque, including Gypsy Rose Lee’s pincushion, a pair of Sally Rand’s feather fans that are nearly 60 years old and have real mother-of-pearl handles, gloves and pasties in every color imaginable, and scrapbooks from traveling performers. In 1991 Evans also started the Miss Exotic World Pageant, which has become the world’s premier contest for burlesque performers.

Dixie Evans family photo

“When I first started here, [Dixie] would come in, and she would be sitting there—and she would look kind of like a normal person,” said Dustin Wax, the executive director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame. “But then people would come in, and she would turn into Dixie Evans, the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque.”

In honor of what would have been her 87th birthday, fans all over the world will rally to celebrate Dixie Evans Week, a celebration from August 26 to September 1, with shows all around the world dedicated to Evans’s memory. Described on its website as a “bawdy, burlesque-packed week,” the event had originally been organized for Evans’s 87th birthday on August 28 and to raise money for her medical costs, but proceeds will now go toward paying off her final medical debts and toward a memorial. The festival originally began when performer Kitten de Ville wanted to organize a show to raise money for Evans—which grew and grew as more and more burlesque performers from around the world wanted to take part. There will be performances from Finland to Australia to Hawaii. 

“I knew it would be big. I didn’t know it would be all over the world—that she would have that far reaching an impact,” said Shoshana Portnoy, one of the organizers of Dixie Evans Week.

Angie Pontani, one of New York’s biggest burlesque stars, said Evans had known about the festitivies in the months before her death. “She was like, ‘A week for me?’” Pontani recalled.

“We encouraged the producers and performers to write her ... And I know she got a big batch of letters a week before she passed,” Pontani said. Evans had also planned on attending the show in Las Vegas. “I’m so happy she knew about it and was excited for it.”

Evans was born Mary Lee Evans on August 28, 1926, in Long Beach, California, to Roy and Annie Evans, who had aristocratic roots, according to Sally, Evans’s biographer. They moved to Australia when Mary was just a young girl due to her father’s job as an oilman. They returned to the U.S. around five years later, and Evans’s father died when she just 11 years old, leaving her mother to raise her and her sister. Evans dropped out of school at age 16 after taking dance lessons. She did chorus work until she began working as a solo burlesque performer at age 23. She was eventually discovered by Harold Minksy, the son of famed impresario Abraham Minsky. Minksy came up to her after one of Evans’s “Hollywood numbers” (the only one of Evans’s performances to be captured on film) and crowned her the “Marilyn Monroe of burlesque.”

Evans had long claimed she was not much of a singer or dancer, so her routines were focused on showmanship. She often performed comedy along with stripping and told stories throughout her performances. She updated her performances constantly, changing them to deal with the latest news, films, or anything having to do with Monroe’s life.

After Monroe’s death, Sally said that Evans was “very distraught.” Evans married a former prize fighter, Harry Braelow, although they divorced a few years later. She then moved to the Bahamas to manage a hotel and later returned to California to open the museum with Lee.

“As soon as the light hit her face, she stood up straighter, raised her chin and smiled a huge showgirl smile,” Jo “Boobs” Weldon recalled in an email of a performance a few years ago. “The curtain opened and the crowd went nuts. It always stayed with me, how she transformed under those stage lights. She gave light back.”

She never lost her love of performing. Pontani recalled that in 2010, Evans had been scheduled to perform after Tempest Storm, one of the biggest burlesque stars in the country. “Dixie was a nervous wreck to go on,” Pontani said. Evans had prepared what she called the “post-office sketch,” where a woman strips down to nearly nothing and says she tells her husband she will walk through town like that if he talks in a tone to her—causing her husband to say, “Will you mail this letter?”

“When she got on, she just knocked it so far out of the park,” Pontani said. “I just felt bad for the person who got on after her.”

Evans still enjoyed her sex appeal. A few years ago she had been sending sexy letters to a young man who sent her $5 in return. Finally one day, he wrote that he had seen her on daytime talk television, and he had a vision of her still in her days as Monroe impersonator. 

“He wrote, 'You are my grandmother’s age, I can’t keep sending you letters like that,'” Sally said. Evans had been 82 years old—but age never stopped her.

This post has been updated.