Dixie Dunbar: Stalwart of ’30s Musicals

Christina Elizabeth “Dixie” Dunbar (1919-1991) took dance classes in her native Montgomery, Alabama, and demonstrated a talent that encouraged her mother to take her to New York. There, though only a kid, she danced in night clubs and with big bands. Her first film spot was in a Vitaphone film short starring Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals when she was only 14. In 1934, she played a character named Patsy Day in the film George White’s Scandals and appeared on Broadway with Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger in Life Begins at 8:40. In Notes on a Cowardly Lion, John Lahr reports that his famous father had a thing for Dunbar and was actively pursuing her at the time. I wonder if he knew she was 15? She was reportedly under five feet tall — it’s not like she looked older than her years.

Then it was back to Hollywood, where Dunbar appeared in supporting parts in 18 films over four busy years. Some of the notable ones included King of Burlesque (1935) with Warner Baxter, Alice Faye, Jack Oakie and Fats Waller; Pigskin Parade (1936) with Jack Haley, Patsy Kelly, Stuart Erwin, Johnny Downs, Betty Grable and Judy Garland; One in a Million (1936) with Sonja Henie, Adolphe Menjou, the Ritz Brothers, Don Ameche, and Ned Sparks; and Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938). Her last movie was a short called Once Over Lightly (1938), co-starring Billy Gilbert and Johnny Downs. At this stage she leaves Hollywood, and it was an interesting time to do so, for that was when her Pigskin Parade co-star Judy Garland, who was both her and her size, was hired for The Wizard of Oz, alongside Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger and Jack Haley — all stars whom Dunbar had performed with.

In 1939 she hied her back to New York and Broadway, performing in Yokel Boy with Buddy Ebsen, Phil Silvers and Judy Canova. The following year, she married Gene Snyder, co-director of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Throughout the ’40s she continued to dance in major nightclubs like New York’s Copacabana and in presentation houses on the RKO circuit. Ironically perhaps her most-seen work was also her most anonymous: she was one of the performers who danced inside a giant package of Old Gold cigarettes in TV commercials in the late 1940s’ and early ’50s. Dixie Dunbar retired from show business in 1953 and later opened a restaurant.

To find out more about the history of show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.