Brooklyn born performer Lee Dixon (1914-1953) performed in vaudeville and was only 18 when he danced in the chorus of the Vitaphone short A Modern Cinderella (1932) starring Ruth Etting. He is best remembered as a dancer, but he could also sing and act, and there are publicity stills of him playing a concertina. Much like Buddy Ebsen, at 6’3″ he was substantially taller than your average hoofer.
By the middle of the ’30s, Dixon had worked his way into Hollywood features, enjoying a brief productive burst that included the musicals Gold Diggers of 1937; Ready, Willing and Able (1937) in which he danced on a giant typewriter with Ruby Keeler (she later called him him one of the two best partners she ever danced with); The Singing Marine (1937, in which he was third billed); and Varsity Show (1937, his third picture with Dick Powell.) That same year he made a live appearance in the Fort Worth Frontier Fiesta (1937), an enormous production created as part of the Texas Centennial civic celebrations. The production he was in, Billy Rose’s Casa Manana Revue became the basis for a 1938 film short starring Dixon, Rose, Virginia Grey, Peggy Ryan and Harriet Hoctor.
In 1940, Dixon starred in the comedy short Double or Nothing, then made his Broadway debut in the Rodgers and Hart show Higher and Higher with Jack Haley, Shirley Ross, Vera-Ellen and June Allyson. In 1942 he played the Scarecrow in the first stage adaptation to be based on the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, produced at the Municipal Opera Association of St. Louis. Many sources say that year he also danced with Paul Draper in the short Six Hits and a Miss (1942) but he’s not in the credits (nor, to my eyes, in the film, it’s on Youtube, as are many of Dixon’s famous numbers). Next came what was perhaps Dixon’s greatest claim to fame: he played the role of Will Parker, opposite Celeste Holm as Ado Annie, in the original production of Oklahoma! (1943-48). In 1946 he starred in a Paramount musical short called Double Rhythm with the Nilsson Sisters. This was followed by a supporting role as John Wayne’s sidekick in the western Angel and the Badman (1947), the farthest he had ever stepped outside the musical genre,
Throughout these years, Dixon also headlined in nightclubs. One can only deduce that this sort of work was what kept a roof over his head after he dropped out of the big time in the late ’40s. The universally told story is that alcoholism is what ruined his career, and finally killed him in 1953 at the age of 38.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.