Seated at a long table at Musso & Frank, Lili Von Schtupp was looking up a number in her crystal-encrusted cell phone. “Oh, my God!” shouted Adonna Vichet, crossing the room clutching a glittering digital camera. “Swavski nines,” she said, referring to the size of the Swarovski crystals she’d glued to her camera. Not to be outdone, Von Schtupp reached into her bag and pulled out a car remote studded with pink rhinestones that matched her hair. “I showed it to my boyfriend,” she said, “and he told me, ‘You realize that’s to my car.’ ”
The two women were waiting, along with 24 other guests, for Dixie Evans to arrive at her 80th-birthday party. When the proprietress of the Exotic World Burlesque Museum in Helendale, 100 miles east, did finally show up, she ordered a cheese omelet without consulting the menu, proclaiming that she’d already had a “beautiful” lunch. Billed as the “Marilyn Monroe of burlesque” during her heyday in the 1950s, Evans still wears her platinum hair in a chiffony pouf and lines her eyes with liquid black. She is, to many aspiring burlesque performers who’ve hoofed it out to Helendale to compete in the annual Miss Exotic World pageant, both fairy godmother and surrogate grandmother.
Sitting under a spray of pink balloons and drinking a glass of champagne, the L.A. native reminisced about working at a nearby Orange Julius stand in the 1940s. “We always knew when they were casting a swashbuckler,” she laughed, recalling the legions of buff young men who would pass by. She added that she’d dined at Musso & Frank a few times — “only if you were with an agent or somebody who would pay for it.”The “Friends of Exotic World” who had gathered in Dixie’s honor included a Canadian film crew; dancers of all ages, including local performer Augusta, whose Velvet Hammer Burlesque documentary is making the festival rounds; and two bona fide legends: stripper supreme Tempest Storm, who dated Elvis Presley, and Kitten Natividad, ex-girlfriend of the late Russ Meyer and the star of his Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens. “I’m the one that sold her soul to the devil,” said Natividad with a grin. “Meaning, I did porn.” The 44DDD bombshell also cared for Meyer during his struggle with Alzheimer’s, and she is still an in-home caregiver three days a week. “It makes me feel human,” she said.
After dinner, most of the guests headed downtown to catch The Ooh La L.A., a burlesque extravaganza at the Orpheum Theater. Walking to her car down Hollywood Boulevard, with her lithe dancer’s frame and cloud of “in-your-face red” hair, Tempest Storm was still turning heads. “I wonder where my ex-husband’s star is,” she said, eyeing the sidewalk for Hugh Jeffries, a.k.a. the Bronze Buckaroo. “Let’s spit on it.”
Arriving at the Orpheum, Evans was presented with a corsage from the show’s stars, Dita Von Teese and two-time Miss Exotic World winner Catherine D’Lish, and shown to a box above the band, the Royal Crown Revue (“They’ve got two saxes,” she noted, impressed). Dixie told of coming to the theater in 1937 with her sister and grandmother to see Cab Calloway. “He had that white suit on,” she remembered, “and the crowd was stomping so loud, they had to stop the show three times because they thought the balcony would come down!” Perhaps because of the lavish surroundings, the audience on this particular evening was uncharacteristically subdued. The emergence of Von Teese, however, like a sleeping princess from a golden powder puff, got everyone riled up. “I didn’t know Dita danced en pointe,” said Dixie, showing an indulgent smile. As the second half of the show got under way, Bella Beretta, the event’s organizer and MC, offered Dixie a surprise rendition of “Happy Birthday” in the breathy style of Marilyn Monroe’s serenade to JFK — a meta-homage if ever there was one. “This is the woman who keeps burlesque alive!” she told the crowd, and Dixie rose to her feet, blowing kisses, parting her lips, and tossing her head back with those iconic gestures that are as much a part of her as they ever were of Norma Jean Baker.
At the Broadway Bar after-party later, vamping in velvet and feathers, Beretta said, “I wanted to make sure Dixie had a moment where she understood how much she means to us. She is our heart. She sacrificed everything and lives on a goat farm to preserve Sally Rand’s fans.” Remarking on the sad physical state of the Exotic World Burlesque Museum today, she added, “I wish I could fund the place, but I’m just a fuckin’ waitress.”