Henry E. Dixey (1859-1943)
The handsome featured Henry E. Dixey possessed too merry a spirit to be a suave tragedian or an earnest hero. He was at heart an entertainer, a performer more interested in delighting an audience that giving life to a classic character. In 1883 he chanced upon the perfect vehicle for his talents (singing, impersonations, posing, physical comedy, mugging), a burlesque named “Adonis.” He played the title role—not in the form of flesh so much as an imitation statue, plastered white—but did not contain himself to presenting the embodiment of a masculine ideal. He played in the course of the show a dry goods clerk, a Hebrew peddler, a barber, actors Henry Irving and Wilson Barrett, and a country lass. He crooned two songs—both of which became hugely famous—“It’s English you Know” and “Susceptible Statuette.” He became overnight the “pet of metropolitan dudedom.” Born in Boston, and launched upon the stage at age nine as a member of the Howard Athenaeum Variety Company, he enjoyed his first success as Peanuts in “Under the Gaslight.” Edward Rice liked what he witnessed and hired him for the touring show of his burlesque “Evangeline”—to play the hind legs of the famous dancing heifer. Energetic and ambitious, he advanced to play the heifer’s head, then the miserable ruffian, the jailor, the conductor, the Bohemian, the lone fisherman, and Le Blanc. Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” would convince critics and audiences that Dixey possessed remarkable skills as both singer and comedian. After “Iolanthe” Edward Rice built “Adonis” for him, the story of a man created in stone and rendered into flesh by a female sculptor to woo her, who proves too promiscuous, who finds himself wooed by others to an obnoxious extent, who restorts to disguises, and in disguise endures many adventures before returning to stone. The success of “Adonis” was so great the Dixey had extraordinary difficulty finding another play that suited him so well. Rice had composer Gustav Kerker concoct a comic opera “The Pearl of Pekin” for him that enjoyed success primarily because of Dixey’s appearance in it. He fashioned an entertainment based on Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” soliloquy. He signed with Augustin Daly and refined his acting skills in “A Night Off” and “Seven Twenty-Eight.” But life in a stock company proved too confining for the star. He toured in a dramatization of S. Weir Mitchell’s “The Adventures of Francois.” His sought plays that afforded him an opportunity to play multiple characters of different types and ages. Sometimes these works were merely passable affairs, such as 1900’s “Oliver Goldsmith.” At other times they possessed some intellectual interest, such as “A Thousand Years Ago.” This versatility recommended him to early motion picture producers, who in 1913 cast him in the lead of the detective drama “Chelsea 7750” (Famous Players). Three years later he starred in another for Mutual, “Father and Son.” By common account, his greatest role in the 1910s was in Peter Swallow in Mrs’ Fiske’s production of “Mrs. Bumstead-Leigh.” Handsome men of good figure have a shelf life, and fifty-five proved Henry E. Dixie’s expiration date. He did not deign to be a character actor. Instead, he retired and reflected on his past immense fame and his unlikely reign as America’s most popular man in the late 1880s.