The One and Only Phyllis Dixey: British Burlesque Phenom of WWII

February 10 was the birthday of British impresario and performer Phyllis Dixey (1914-1964). Dixey is best remembered as a “striptease artiste” but her career was much more varied than that in her early years, and she was skilled as a singer and dancer.

Dixey studied ballet as a child in her native Surrey but was told she was too tall to pursue it professionally. Her professional work was as a child dancer in pantomimes. Two different theatrical producers became important to her career in the 1930s. Impresario Wallace Parnell cast her in the chorus of his touring revues. In 1935 she toured Australia with his show Laughter Express, which is where she met her future husband, music hall partner, and eventual co-producer, the Irish-American comedian Jack Tracy. The other key figure to her early career was comedian-actor-manager Ernie Lotinga.  In the early and mid 30s she toured with Lotinga’s show The Means Test, and appeared with him in the 1936 film Love Up the Pole. After this she formed a double act with Tracy and performed with him in music hall and a show called Hughie Green and His Gang. 

Dixey debuted her act “Confessions of a Fan Dancer” at the Tivoli Theatre in Hull in 1939. The act immediately caused a stir, and attracted attention from the public, press and police whatever town she performed in. In 1941, she brought it to London, performing it in the show Picadilly to Dixie at the Phoenix Theatre. A photographer named Roye published two books full of images of Dixey: The Phyllis Dixey Album and Phyllis in Censorland. In 1942 she formed a company of dancers and put on revues at the Whitehall Theatre, the first ever dedicated striptease show on the West End. Jack was the promoter of her Peekaboo Revues, and played a comic character named Snuffy. Her shows were hugely popular with wartime audiences and in the immediate post-war period.

In 1946 she appeared in the film Dual Alibi with Herbert Lom. The following year she closed her Whitehall show on the heels of five years of success. For several years she and Tracy toured her revues through Britain and Scandinavia. By the mid-1950s competition from similar revues plus the advent of television had taken their toll and she was forced to stop headlining and producing her own vehicles. In 1956, billed as “The One and Only Phyllis Dixey”, she appeared with Paul Raymond’s touring revue. She danced professionally through 1958.

In 1959 Dixey and Tracy declared bankruptcy. She became a professional cook and Tracy became a milkman. In 1961 she discovered that she had breast cancer. It killed her in 1964.

Phyllis Dixey’s life was immortalized in the 1978 film The One and Only Phyllis Dixey and in a 2009 play called Barely Phillis. And this plaque, placed on her former home after much controversy:

Two good sources for more information on Phyllis Dixey are the Epsom and Ewell History Explorer and this article in the Daily Mail. 

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