Exploring the dusty back roads off Highway 66 in Southern Californian we were used to happening upon some fairly unexpected sights. However the area around Helendale – a small nothing kind of town – had little to recommend it. After some hours of scrubby depressing desert that even the cactus looked miserable in we were considering turning around when we saw the sign.
“EXOTIC WORLD BURLESQUE MUSEUM”
It was mounted on a chain link fence that surrounded 40 acres of desert scrub. Inside was a typical nondescript California ranch house. Beside it sat a navy blue Rolls Royce. The gate was ajar and we drove in.
The door of the house opened and Marilyn Monroe appeared. She was dressed in stretch black pants, kitten heels and a tight, plunging-neckline fluffy pink sweater. It was about 10 am.
The extraordinary apparition gave a little wave and sashayed towards us. Up close Dixie Evans – then in her sixties – bore more than a passing resemblance to the woman she had spent her career impersonating. Beneath the full make-up and perfectly coiffed platinum hair she was a tantalizing hint of what Ms. Monroe might now look like had she lived – and had a full life.
Dixie was delighted she had Australian visitors – she was delighted she had ANY visitors – but Aussies were an added bonus because she had spent her early childhood in Roma, Queensland. Her father, she explained as she led us towards the museum housed in another building, had worked for an oil mining company up there in the tropical north and her childhood had been very happy. In fact it had been the happiest time of her life.
The museum itself was fascinating – but not nearly as fascinating as its custodian and guide. In a perfect Marilyn whispery voice – and using Fred Astaire’s silver cane as a pointer – Dixie showed us lovingly displayed gowns and G-strings of the goddesses of striptease. Lili St. Cyr, Gypsy Rose Lee, Tempest Storm and all the others. Jane Mansfield’s bath tub was there. Feathers, bling, and pasties of every color each had a story from an earlier, more innocent, age of erotica.
Whether it was the fact that my companion David was a journalist or that she was simply starved for company Dixie began recounting story after story of her life during the golden age of American striptease when she had reigned as the “Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque.”
She insisted we stay for lunch and ushered us inside the main house she shared with the widower of another legend of the stage. Jennie Lee the famous “Bazoom Girl” had died some years earlier after buying the old ex-goat farm out here near Barstow. Her plan was to provide a retirement home for the former girls of burlesque – and to open a museum honouring them.
Her old friend Dixie was now bringing that dream to life.
Jennie’s ashes rested in a lovely urn on the mantelpiece. Her husband came in and welcomed us then left his wife’s friend to tell her stories. No doubt he had heard them before. But we hadn’t. In the strange, dark house Dixie hauled out box after box of photos and rare memorabilia she was still sorting for the museum. With each photo came a story about the girl smiling or pouting for the camera – the girls who had thrilled men for a generation before this art form gradually lost its appeal.
Dixie was lamenting the end of America’s interest in the great tradition of burlesque when an extraordinary figure flashed past the window. She peered at us through a blanket draped over her head as she scuttled by. It was hard to tell how old the woman was but her missing teeth and sun-toughened skin suggested a sad U-turn in her life. Dixie told us she was an ex-dancer, down on her luck, who they had taken in. Because she couldn’t stand being indoors she was currently living under a hedge.
As if things couldn’t get any more bizarre the door opened and a dog entered. It was lacking a snout. The silly boy, Dixie, informed us, had got it bitten off sticking his nose down a gopher hole. With the toothless cloaked woman and the no-nose dog – and with Jennie Lee’s ashes presiding from the mantelpiece – I started to feel as if I was hallucinating.
Dixie herself almost seemed unreal – a phantom out there in the middle of nowhere surrounded by the glitz of another time. She told us she used to strip at one of Jack Ruby’s clubs in Dallas and had her own theory about JFK’s assassin. Ruby was evidently obsessed with Jackie – so obsessed that he was prepared to shoot the man who killed her husband. That’s love for you! Dixie had absolutely no doubt about this.
The desert gets dark early in winter. Suddenly it was night. Our hostess insisted we stay over. She wouldn’t hear of us leaving. We were visitors from her favourite country and must stay in the “Honeymoon Suite.” As alluring as the red heart-shaped bed was we had to hit the road.
Before the light went Dixie offered to pose – a la Marilyn – draped across the Rolls Royce. The photo later appeared in an Australian newspaper with David’s article. We sent her a copy and she was delighted. Other journalists followed the story up. A friend from British TV came and made a program about the museum and Dixie for a travel show. Maybe, she told us, the world was finally waking up to a chapter of its heritage it had stuffed away in a drawer for too long.
Maybe Marilyn was finally going to come back from the dead.