Broadway and vaudeville performer, specialty tap dancer, musical comedienne, and self described “health nut,” Dixie Roberts, danced her way to vibrant wellness through most of the 20th Century.
Born on April 5, 1919, her first professional dancing job was with the Tommy Dorsey Band in 1935, when she was 16. Billed as the dancer who “taps with a Southern accent,” she was featured in ads for 7-Up and Clairol. Today, Dixie enjoys her retirement in Florida, as a wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.
In 1943, Dixie was a specialty tap dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies, where she sometimes partnered with Milton Berle, and then shot pool with him after the shows. Renowned columnist, Walter Winchell, singled her out on a number of occasions, as “one of the lookers in the Ziegfeld Follies.”
Dixie danced her way across the U.S. in a host of clubs and houses of entertainment from New York City’s Copacabana to Chicago’s Chez Paree to San Francisco’s Orpheum. She often made a memorable entrance, sliding onto the stage in an athletic burst of panache to appreciative applause! She opened shows for, and shared the stage with some of the biggest stars of the day, including Danny Thomas, Henny Youngman, Pearl Bailey, Jimmy Durante, and Benny Goodman.
After a performance at the La Martinique dinner theatre in 1946, a fan made his way backstage to tell her what an exceptional dancer she was. They dined at New York’s Armondo’s afterwards, and he tried to convince her to go to Hollywood. But she stayed on the East Coast, turning down both Hollywood—and Gene Kelly!
During one USO hospital tour, Dixie tap-danced with Peg Leg Bates, the renowned, black, one-legged tap dancer. She recalls that he was a very cheerful fellow, and “danced far better with one leg than almost anyone else with two!”
Dixie was also a specialty performer in the Broadway show, “Dream with Music” (1943), in which she was the featured dancer in several numbers, and also danced with legendary choreographer, George Balanchine’s wife, Vera Zorina.
The picture of health, Dixie was also a prizewinning athlete: A.A.U. Swimming Champ, expert riflewoman, and New York State Cue Champion. As a teen she was invited to train for the U.S. Olympic swim team. When her father refused to let her participate in such scandalous activity, she "showed" him—she went into “show biz”, instead!
The Sunday Mirror reported, in language that sounds a bit archaic to modern ears, that 22-year-old Dixie, “once had a run of 93 in three cushion billiards, bowls a neat 200 and finished last season batting .405 … and has the trophies to prove it … She has won 11 plaques for excellence in sports since she’s been in show business, and her accomplishments range from swimming and track to stud poker. There’s a popular belief that men don’t like athletic girls, but Dixie belies it. She’s probably the most popular dame in the show, in a cast of 50 expensive stunners.”
“Show biz” could be very demanding. In those days it was not unusual to perform in five or six shows per day, beginning in the morning and ending late in the evening.
One 1943 entertainment reporter noted, “Miss Roberts … can be seen daily at the Vitamaster, New York’s famous Health Food Center, where she enjoys her favorite salad and fresh vegetable juices.”
A fitness-conscious athlete and vegetarian, Dixie stuck to her healthy regime while other performers ate fast foods and partied all night. She believed in having a positive attitude, frequently revealing a deep and wildly infectious laugh, which continues to this day. In addition to performances, Dixie exercised daily and kept a diet regimen that was filled with juices, salads and fresh vegetables.
The proof is in the pudding: at 90, Dixie has outlived vaudeville’s late night “gallivanters,” and clearly has earned the last laugh!
Note: A three minute you-tube video of Peg Leg Bates’ performances confirms Dixie’s observations, revealing his unique talent and a positive attitude untarnished by the loss of his leg at age 12. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGS7hTQ8UWA
All photos used with permission of Dixie Roberts Baurenfeind.
Internet Broadway Data Base. Dream with Music. http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=1427 Accessed March 26, 2009.
Internet Broadway Data Base. Ziegfeld Follies of 1943. http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=1286 Accessed March 26, 2009.
Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dixie_Roberts Accessed March 26, 2009.
Winchell, Walter. Column in the Sunday Mirror, Magazine section. Aug. 15, 1943.