For years, if you honked three times outside the right gate in the desert between Victorville and Barstow on old Route 66, an aging "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque" would emerge.
She sauntered down the driveway at the abandoned goat ranch and waved visitors under a sign that read "Exotic World Museum." Through her perfectly lacquered lips, she told tales of an era that emphasized tease — not strip — and the ladies who defined it. For 16 years, she lived at and ran the hodgepodge collection of stripper memorabilia in the town of Helendale, which included Sally Rand's fans, lingerie owned by Gypsy Rose Lee and pasties in every color imaginable.
Dixie Evans, a Long Beach native whose fame started with an even-sexier-than-Marilyn shtick and endured because she ran a pageant and museum for strippers, died of natural causes on Aug. 3 in Las Vegas, said Lynn Sally, Evan's biographer. She was 86.
Amid a clutter of sequined G-strings and fading feather boas, Evans staged a burlesque revival.
"She was always hustling," Lynn said. "And she was always plotting: How am I going to get the museum into the news?"
To Evans, often dubbed the "Godmother of Burlesque," everybody she met was a convert of sorts, said Dustin Wax, executive director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame. (The museum changed its name when Evans moved it to Las Vegas in 2006.)
A few years ago, a gender and media class from a college in Arizona visited the museum, Wax recalled. A young woman caught Evans' eye and she stared at her for a few moments. She was very pretty, Evans told her, and she thought she should consider stripping. The girl just laughed.
"For most young women, they'd be like, 'What? How dare you!'" Wax said. "But from her it was such a compliment."
Evans strived to make her acts seductive and relevant — sometimes peppering in satire from current events — rather than baring it all.
"It wasn't about taking your clothes off," she told the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger newspaper in 2007. "It was the way you took them off."
Born Mary Lee Evans on Aug. 28, 1926, she was a toddler when she moved with her family to Australia for her father's job as an oilman, Sally said. Soon after their return to California a few years later, he died in an accident in the oil fields, leaving her mother to raise Evans and her sister, Betty, who survives her. Evans dropped out of high school and got a job picking and planting celery in fields outside L.A. Then she answered an ad for chorus girls in Hollywood. She got the gig and parlayed it into modeling jobs and burlesque performances.
Her big break came in the early 1950s when she met burlesque impresario Harold Minsky, who, struck by her look-alike potential, billed her as the "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque." The bleached hairdo helped her pass as the icon. And so did the hours she spent studying Monroe's quintessential look and mannerisms: lids heavy over her alluring eyes as she spoke in spurts of breathy baby talk.
Both born in Southern California the year Route 66 was established, Evans never met the woman she spent her career imitating.
Even still, her portrayal was spot-on, said Tempest Storm, a fellow burlesque queen, who knew Evans, and once lived down the street from Monroe on De Longpre Avenue in Hollywood.
"Dixie was very good," Storm said, laughing at the memory of her impersonations. "Very good."
A poster of Evans posing as Monroe for a show at the Place Pigalle in Miami proclaimed: "SHE'S THE SENSATION OF THE NATION. HOTTER THAN ANY HYDROGEN BOMB."
During a performance there she met her husband Harry Braelow, a prizefighter. Their marriage overlapped with a bout of depression triggered by Monroe's death in 1962, and the couple divorced a few years later.
Evans moved to the Bahamas to manage a hotel, a deal born of a tryst with a stockbroker who had connections on the island. When she returned to California a few years later, her friend Jennie Lee told her about her plan to create a haven of burlesque memorabilia at her ranch in the desert, a place where ex-performers could come to retire. When Lee died of breast cancer in 1990, her widower asked Evans to take over the collection. She opened the museum that same year.
The museum was about a third of the way between L.A. and Las Vegas — the "must in the dust" as she sometimes called it — and Evans knew she would need to pull a publicity stunt to draw visitors to the middle of the Mojave.
So in 1991 she started Miss Exotic World, a pageant that drew burlesque performers from around the country to the ranch. After 22 years, it's still going.
After a 36-year-old Betty Crocker-esque dancer took first place in 2000, Evans told The Times she was a bit disappointed by a few of the performers whom she felt emphasized full-on nudity, not the art of tease.
"We've always been sort of old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy," she said.
Quick, even proud, to admit that she lived in the past, Evans loved to tell stories about burlesque's reign.
"We'd walk down the street, and the servicemen would yell, 'Hubba hubba,' " she told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1999. "And we'd think, 'Wow, hubba hubba, life is good.' "Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times