Phyllis Dixey (1914-1964)


Phyllis Dixey
Phyllis Dixey
Image courtesy of Yak El-Droubie and the Pamela Green archive
(Advisory note: This site has adult content).

For a declining number of the British population the variety artiste Phyllis Dixey is remembered for her "Peek a Boo" revues.

In 1978 Thames Television produced a drama documentary on the life on Phyllis Dixey. The documentary was televised and had a memorable performance by Lesley Anne-Down in the role of an adult Phyllis Dixey.

Cover of The one and only Phyllis Dixey
Cover of the book 'The one and only Phyllis Dixey'
by Philip Purser and Jenny Wilkes
1978, Futura Publications, London, ISBN 0708814360

Today, Phyllis Dixey is thought of as a fan dancer but this was only a part of her life on the stage and film.

A 1940s newspaper cutting
A 1940s newspaper cutting
Image courtesy of Maurice Poole

Phyllis Dixey started her career as a child dancer in pantomime. Later, Phyllis secured a job in the chorus line with the impresario Wallace Parnell. This was a time of the grand revues and Wallace Parnell was famous for his glamorous productions. Later Phyllis found employment with the comedian and actor-manager Ernie Lotinga and toured Britain in a show called, "The Means Test".

In 1935 Wallace Parnell contracted Phyllis to tour Australia in the show "Laughter Express" This was the first voyage abroad for Phyllis and on this tour she met the man who later became her husband, Jack Tracy.

Phyllis Dixey
Phyllis Dixey
Image courtesy of Maurice Poole

On Phyllis's return to Britain in 1936 she rejoined Ernie Lotinga in the "Means Test". In the winter of 1936 Phyllis was in Red Riding Hood as Maid Marian at the Empress in Brixton. Also in 1936, Phyllis was to appear in her first film role in the slapstick farce, "Love Up The Pole" appearing with Ernie Lotinga.

After touring with Ernie Lotinga Phyllis joined Jack Tracy in a double variety act touring theatres in Britain. One of the shows Phyllis and Jack toured with at this time in the late 1930's was the show, "Hughie Green and His Gang".

In late 1939 Phyllis and Jack conceived a new routine. This time it was a fan dance and in November of 1939 at the Tivoli Theatre in Hull Phyllis performed her new routine. This was not the first time this dance had been performed in Britain, the British artiste Denise Vane had been fan dancing since 1937. The fan dance routine was a sensation in war torn Britain. In November 1941 Phyllis was appearing at the Phoenix Theatre in London in a show called, "Piccadilly to Dixie". On the 11th November in a kind gesture Phyllis bought every seat in the Phoenix Theatre and gave a show to an audience of servicemen.

Whitehall Theatre Programme 27 December 1943
Whitehall Theatre Programme for 'Good Night Ladies.' 27 December 1943
Image courtesy of Maurice Poole

During this time the well know photographer Roye produced a book of Phyllis Dixey figure studies. This was the "Phyllis Dixey Album" and was followed shortly by another book, "Phyllis in Censorland".

Cover of Phyllis in Censorland
Cover of Phyllis in Censorland
Image courtesy of Maurice Poole

During 1943 Phyllis appeared in Brighton in a straight play called, "Trilby" and then in the play, "While Parents Sleep". There came now a period Phyllis is most remember with her time in London's Whitehall Theatre. War time revues at the Whitehall Theatre were ,"Good Night Ladies'!", Peek a Boo! and Peek a Boo Again!. The Peek a Boo revues were put on by Phyllis and Jack under their production company, Dixtra Enterprises, Ltd. Jack part on the theatre bill was that of Snuffy in a comic routine.

Whitehall Theatre Programme 16 October 1944
Whitehall Theatre Programme for 'Peek-a-Boo!' 16 October 1944
Image courtesy of Maurice Poole

In 1947 Phyllis appeared in her second film, "Dual Alibi" along side the actor Herbert Lom.

After the Second World War Phyllis went on tour again in variety theatres through out Britain. In 1949 Phyllis and Jack embarked on a number of tours to Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

The first tours were very successful a third tour was arranged for 1953 which was a dismal failure, ending up with Phyllis working in Gothenburg, Sweden on a boat which had a small stage. Due to the nature of running shows on a boat considerable additional charges were incurred so little money was made and it was decided to return home.

In 1954 the last overseas tour was made to Norway, which was a complete failure. This ended with the theatre management not paying for the last week that Phyllis appeared at the Oslo theatre and a loan was made by the British Consul to get the theatre company home.

Poster for The Phyllis Dixey Show, Aldershot
Poster for The Phyllis Dixey Show, Aldershot
Taken from the book BURLESQUE POSTER DESIGN: The Art of Tease
Introduction by Chaz Royal, ISBN: 978-09553398-2-0
Image courtesy of Yak El-Droubie and the Pamela Green archive
(Advisory note: This site has adult content).

A new British tour was arranged but there were many new touring companies with tableau and fan dancing routines. A young Paul Raymond had entered the world of the nude tableau show in 1951 and there were also a number of competing revues. The 1950's were the last years for many provincial variety theatres which were closing down due to the onslaught of television and many artistes were leaving the theatre at this time.

In 1956 Phyllis Dixey was on the bill in a Paul Raymond show and billed as the "One and Only Phyllis Dixey" - gone of the days of Phyllis and Jack running their own productions. The finial show with Phyllis Dixey was at the Palace Burnley on the 19 April 1958. Phyllis last working years were spent working as a cook as for Major James Molyneux and his family at Loseley Park near Guildford.

Programme for Phyllis Dixey at Empire Leeds
Programme cover and an inside page for Phyllis Dixey at Empire Leeds
Image courtesy of Maurice Poole
Click image to enlarge

In last few years of her life Phyllis fought a brave battle with cancer and died on the 02 June 1964, at the age of 50 years old.

Phyllis Dixey is not forgotten today, her legacy in revue theatre was glamour and style. A play on Phyllis Dixey called, "Barely Phyllis" was produced in March, 2009 and staged at the Pomegranate Theatre in Chesterfield.

Her headstone in Epsom Cemetery had deteriorated but was restored late in 2005 by the British Music Hall Society.

This article was researched and written by Maurice Poole © 2009.
References:
The One and Only Phyllis Dixey by Philip Purser and Jenny Wilkes.Published by Futura Publications Ltd., London. 1978 ISBN 0 7088 14360
The Phyllis Dixey Album. Studies by Roye. The Camera Studies Club.
Phyllis in Censorland. Studies by Roye. The Camera Studies Club.
The One and Only Phyllis Dixey Drama documentary programme. Thames Television.1978.



A short film clip entitled 'MEET PHYLLIS DIXEY' is available to download on the British Pathe webite



ADDENDUM

Hazel Ballan was so intrigued by the description of Phyllis in Maurice's article above that she has used her extensive genealogical skills to uncover a few more items about the One and Only:


Phyllis Selina Dixey (1914-1964).


Phyllis and her husband Jack
Phyllis and her husband Jack
Image courtesy of Oliver Dixey

Phyllis Selina Dixey was born on 10 February 1914 (GRO: Mar 1914 Croydon 2a 746) at Kingston Road, Merton, Surrey to Ernest and Phyllis Selina Dixey, nee Haycroft/Horsecroft. Her mother was born Phillis Selina Horsecroft (GRO: Dec 1891 Kingston 2a 312) but her marriage, in 1911 (GRO: Sept 1911 Poplar 1c 968), is recorded under the name Haycroft. Phyllis had one older brother Ernest, who was born in 1912, also in the Croydon registration district.

Phyllis's mother was known as Selina who died aged 87 in 1978. Phyllis's father worked away a lot as a ship's steward and later as a train carriage attendant.

Phyllis and her brother were first educated at Fircroft Road Elementary School Tooting before the family moved to Surbiton Surrey.

British Phone listings 1936-40 confirm that a Phyllis Dixey as living at 137 Tolworth Rise Surbiton. Phyllis being listed as a 'third class' incoming passenger aboard the "S.S. Oronsay" arriving on 7 May 1936 from Brisbane Australia, further confirms this information even though her address has been written as 137 Folworth Rye Surbiton Surrey. She was recorded as being aged 22 and her occupation described as a 'theatrical artiste'.

It was while Phyllis was working in Australia that she met her husband Jack Tracy (originally spelt Treacy). Jack was a short man only measuring 5'½+" who was born in Ireland but after the death of his mother was raised in a convent before being sent, at the age of 5, to America. He became a comic and musician.

While courting, Jack would often take Phyllis to eat at the 'Ace of Spades' in Hook and after knowing each other for 18 months, the couple married on 8 December 1937 at Raynes Park Registry Office, with two strangers acting as witnesses. Although Phyllis's mother never really took to Jack and what with Jack's extramarital affairs over the years, they did reach their silver wedding anniversary in 1963, which passed without any celebration.

Their first homes were 10 Fairbourn Road Brixton and Wentworth Court Surbiton (c1941) after which Phyllis and Jack bought 'Strand Lodge' Beaconsfield Road Langley Vale Epsom, a bungalow that stood in 10 acres of land. This home gave Phyllis the privacy she yearned for and it was claimed where she could sunbathe nude in the summer of 1944. They furnished their beautiful home with Persian carpets, Hepplewhite chairs, Hanley lamps and the mirrors and silver that Phyllis favoured. It was here that Phyllis acquired the first of her Pekinese dogs, Josie, who she doted on. It was also here that the only short piece of cine film, shot by cameraman Terry Ashwood, was taken of Phyllis; Phyllis had a liking for cold showers and it was suggested by Ashwood that she should take one in her garden. He said "That is, she went behind a bush and threw a bucket of water over herself. I told her no one would see a thing". Apparently the short film, that lasts only 2-3 minutes, survives somewhere in someone's archives. (Webmasters note:- This may be the British Pathe film clip mentioned above.)

In 1946, after living there for only three years, Phyllis and Jack decided to sell up and moved into a leasehold 2 bed roomed flat north of Hyde Park, 101 Albion Gate, but this was not before they were burgled shortly before doing so. Burglars broke in through the conservatory doors on Thursday 3 April 1947 and stolen Phyllis's mink coat, worth £2,000, that she had reputably bought for her film 'Dual Alibi' plus £500 cash and £500 in securities. She was quoting as saying "You know I am not supposed to wear any clothes on the stage. Maybe the thieves were among my fans."

Several newspapers reported her as being bankrupt in 1959 with debts of £1,312 and assets of only £4. When appearing in the Brighton tax court she told them that she stopped taking it off and become a hotel cook instead so that she wouldn't "be stripped of everything again by the tax man". She also said that they were now living with relatives. It was not until October 1961 that they were successfully discharged from bankruptcy.

Phyllis and Jack eventually went to live and work for Major James Molyneux and his family at Loseley Park near Guildford. Loseley Park became famous for its milk, cream and ice cream and this is where Jack helped out by delivering milk around Guildford. Phyllis was employed to cook lunch for the family but often helped Jack out with his round. Phyllis had every Thursday afternoon off and always went to visit her godfather Uncle Norman, who lived in 'The Retreat' Down Woods opposite Tattenham Corner on the Epsom boarders, to take him to his weekly séance. He was described as being of Indian blood, Parsee by religion and a mystic by nature.

Uncle Norman whose real name was Nusli Whaddia, had once been married to Phyllis's mother's sister Eileen. He had two sons, Ardesir born in 1939 and Norman born in 1944. Norman was later a boarder at Epsom College. It had been Uncle Norman, a wealthy man whose money had been made from textile mills in Bombay, who had paid for Phyllis's first dance classes in the West End when she was young. They had remained very close and it was Uncle Norman, now in his 80's, who invited Phyllis to move in with him, but without Jack, on the pretence of needing someone to look after him. After 22 years of marriage Phyllis and Jack decided that it would be for the best and so on 26 November 1960, after giving away their very few bits of furniture, Phyllis left with her cat Charlie who she had rescued as a stray, to live the rest of her unknowingly short life at "The Retreat".

After telling her husband and Uncle about a small lump she had found in her breast that was not getting any smaller, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 1961 at Surbiton Hospital. Jack stayed in close contact with Phyllis, meeting her in a café in Kingston, during her battle with the cancer that eventually spread throughout her body, despite the best efforts of the doctors of the day.

It was during the last few months of her life that she turned to the comfort of the Catholic Church. She was received into the Church during a visit in Guys Hospital from Father Crispin in April 1964. At the end of that month she returned home to "The Retreat" for the last time. Phyllis Selina Dixey Tracy died at home on Tuesday 2 June 1964 aged 50.

Her husband Jack, who had been working as a steward at Holme Park Golf club Kingston, thanks to a reference from Uncle Norman, purchased her grave V27 in the Catholic section of Epsom cemetery on 16 June 1964 and gave his address as 14 Elmers Ave. Surbiton. Jack remarried several years' later and remained living in Surbiton.

Phyllis's Headstone in April 2009
Phyllis's Headstone in April 2009
Image courtesy of Hazel Ballan © 2009

Phyllis's headstone reads (NB. 'Tracy' has been carved with an 'e')

IN
GRATEFUL AND LOVING MEMORY
OF
PHYLLIS DIXEY
BY HER HUSBAND JACK TRACEY.
UNCLE NORMAN AND SON NORMAN N. WHADDIA.
DIED 2ND JUNE 1964
AGED 50 YEARS.

References:
  • The One and Only Phyllis Dixey by Philip Purser and Jenny Wilkes. Published by Futura Publications
  • Various Newspaper Articles both British and American
  • FreeBMD
  • Ancestry


Langley Vale
Langley Vale
Marie Lloyd
Marie Lloyd