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Childhood
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Military Service
Performing on the Road
Life After Show Business

PERFORMING ON THE ROAD

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Return to Show Business:
Click to EnlargeAfter receiving his discharge from the Army, Tommy returned to New York City. He was soon contacted by Ed Sullivan who wrote a column for the New York Daily News, had a radio show on CBS (“Ed Sullivan Entertains” broadcast live from the 21 Club), and worked as an emcee for the vaudeville revues at the Loew’s State Theatre on Broadway. Tommy’s singing talent had impressed Ed when they had met a year before, and he asked Tommy if he would sing in the Loew’s State Theater’s revue to mark his return to Show Business. Tommy accepted and, on September 7, 1944, Ed Sullivan introduced the “Private with the Sergeant’s voice” from the stage of the prestigious Loew’s State Theatre, and Tommy’s powerful baritone voice once again filled the auditorium.

Through the William Morris Talent Agency, Tommy immediately began getting bookings at the most famous nightclubs and theatres around the country. From the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel in New York City to The Empire Room at the Palmer House in Chicago to the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco; from the Ritz–Carlton Hotel in Boston to the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, to the Roosevelt Hotel’s Blue Room in New Orleans; and from the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia to the “Borscht Belt” resorts in upstate New York to the legendary Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas (to name but a few of the venues he played), Tommy was in constant demand as a headline act. For six years he crisscrossed the nation performing in nightclubs, vaudeville shows, supper clubs, country clubs, and at special events.

Trivia:
– At the height of his popularity Tommy was earning $3,000 a week.
– In 1947 Tommy purchased a powerful Chrysler Town & Country convertible to transport himself from city to city.

The Palmer House:
One venue that Tommy was invited back to repeatedly for as long as three months at a time was the Empire Room at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. The entertainment at The Empire Room was ruled over by Merriell Abbott who produced the shows and provided the “Abbott Dancers” for the show’s chorus line from a dance school she ran. When she first saw Tommy, shortly after he had returned to Show Business, she asked him why he was going to sing The Lord’s Prayer during his set. She wondered whether it was appropriate to sing a religious song in a nightclub where drinks were being served. When Tommy explained that he wanted to sing it for “the boys overseas”, she sheepishly agreed to let him do it. Then on opening night when he appeared wearing his usual sport coat, slacks and tie, Merriell asked him where his tuxedo was. When he explained that he didn’t own a tuxedo, she insisted that the next day he find a tailor and have one made. “No one performs at The Palmer House without a tuxedo,” she said.

Tommy went out that night and stopped the show with his renditions of Old Man River, and Buckle Down, Winsocki. But toward the end of his act, when he sang The Lord’s Prayer, everything came to a complete standstill. The song touched the hearts of the war–weary audience, and when the last note faded away they broke into a thunderous standing ovation stopping the show cold in its tracks. When Tommy left the stage Merriell was waiting for him and, with a tear in her eye, she said softly, “Forget what I said. Don’t change a thing.”

Trivia:
– Merriell Abbott was a choreographer, guardian, and ever–watchful mother to her young dancers. She decided who they could date (no orchestra players, please) and even had them weigh–in every Thursday morning to make sure their figures remained trim.

Marriage:
Despite his hectic schedule, Tommy continued to visit his girlfriend in Birmingham, Alabama, as often as he could, sometimes even overcoming his fear of flying and arriving by plane. Tommy’s career was booming, and by 1946 he was living in an apartment at #1 West 68th Street, facing Central Park.

Click to EnlargeIn the summer of 1946 Tommy Dix and Margaret Ann Grayson were married, and Tommy legally changed his name to Tommy Dix. But even as a newlywed there was no pause in his career, and during their honeymoon on Miami Beach Tommy accepted an invitation to perform at the nearby Kitty Davis’ Airliner nightclub.

Although they were happy and could afford to live quite well (they moved from NYC and settled down in California’s San Fernando Valley), the frequent separations caused by Tommy’s non–stop schedule began to put a strain on their marriage. Because Maggie and their two children (Grayson and Brittain) meant so much to him, sometime in 1948 Tommy began thinking about retiring from the professional stage and taking up a “normal” life.

Edith Fellows:
Thoughts of retirement were put on temporary hold when Freddie Fields, an important theatrical agent with the Music Corporation of America, contacted Tommy and suggested that he team–up with Freddie’s wife, Edith Fellows.

Trivia:
– Freddie Fields was the agent for such celebrities as George Burns & Gracie Allen, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, and Phil Silvers. Later he handled Judy Garland, Henry Fonda, and Paul Newman among others. In the 1980s he became the CEO of the MGM Film Company.

Click to EnlargeEdith had been a popular child actress during the 1930s and early 1940s, appearing in almost 50 movies – most notably with Bing Crosby in Pennies From Heaven (1936) and a series of four “Five Little Peppers” movies in 1939/1940. She was a versatile actress and an accomplished singer with a beautiful soprano voice. Once she had outgrown juvenile roles she went on the road appearing in regional plays, vaudeville shows, and nightclubs with mixed success.

Trivia:
– Edith Fellows was only 4’10” tall.
– A play about Edith Fellows as a child actress was written by Rudy Benz in 1979. Titled Dreams Deferred, the play opened at a small theater in Los Angeles with Edith playing herself.
– In 1985, fellow former child actor Jackie Cooper announced plans to make a TV movie based on Edith’s life, but the project never happened.

In 1946 Edith married Freddie Fields, and he eventually decided that teaming her with Tommy would be a good professional move for both of them. In October 1948, Tommy and Edith announced that they would become a team and began preparing an act that combined light comedy with singing. Building the act for almost six months while Tommy continued to perform around the country, they finally opened at the Olympia Theatre in Miami at a benefit concert. Sid Piermont was in the audience, and he immediately offered to book them at the Capitol Theatres in Washington, DC, and New York City. A whirlwind of non–stop bookings at theaters and clubs around the country quickly followed, and the bookings continued in high gear until the middle of the following year when Tommy finally had had enough.

The Latin Quarter:
Click to EnlargeNew York City’s Latin Quarter was a popular nightclub that Lou Walters opened in 1942 at the corner of 48th Street and Broadway. Modeled somewhat after the Moulin Rouge in Paris, the shows at The Latin Quarter featured elaborate settings and costumes, a chorus line of beautiful dancing girls, famous bands, and big–name acts from every area of Show Business. There were also branches of Walters’ Latin Quarter nightclub in Boston, Miami Beach, and Chicago, and entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, and Tony Bennett regularly performed at these clubs intermingled with waves of high–kicking chorus girls.

Click to EnlargeAfter Tommy returned to Show Business in 1944, many of his professional engagements were at the New York Latin Quarter and its branches. Over time Lou Walters and Tommy became close friends, and when Tommy and Edith Fellows formed their act they were quickly booked at Lou Walter’s clubs. At the end of July 1950, while performing at the Latin Quarter in New York City, Tommy suddenly announced his retirement from Show Business. Although he and Edith were already booked to play the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, the Palmer House in Chicago, and the Roxy Theatre in New York City, Tommy realized that continually being on the road had become critically detrimental to his relationship with his family. He decided that he needed to focus on his wife and children, not on his Show Business career. While still one of the most popular headline acts in the country, Tommy Dix called it quits.

Trivia:
– Lou Walters was the father of Barbara Walters, a popular journalist who became well known for interviewing famous people on television.

 

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