Nobody would want to go back and relive the painful experience of World War II, but for Lillian Hanham Dixon, the Christmas holiday season of 1944 in New York City was indeed the time of her life.
“I would write home to my mom and my sister, but I wouldn’t tell them all that was going on because I was afraid they wouldn’t believe me,” said Hanham Dixon, an Illinois native and long-time Schenectady resident who worked as a professional dancer in the Big Apple for nearly 11 months in 1944 and 1945. “I was only 18 but I’m so happy I left my hometown. I didn’t know what I was going to do or for how long, but New York City was just a different world. I have so many great memories from that time. Being in New York in the ‘40s was the highlight of my life.”
Born in July of 1926, Hanham Dixon up in the Pigeon Hill neighborhood of Aurora, Illinois. By the time she graduated from high school in 1944, she was already an experienced pro on the dance floor, and New York was beckoning.
“Leaving Aurora was the best thing for me,” Hanham Dixon said last week from her home on Phoenix Ave. “New York City during the war was such a wonderful time. Everything was open all night, there were servicemen everywhere getting on ships and getting back on ships, and I even ran into some high school friends there. Everything was so much fun.”
Hanham Dixon danced at night clubs well into the early morning hours, and rubbed elbows with the likes of Jackie Gleason and Dean Martin.
“I was amazed my mother let me go, but she knew I was a good girl,” said Hanham Dixon. “But I was 18 and I was going to conquer the world. We worked hard, dancing all night, and the club owner would tell us to go down on the floor and mix. I told him, ‘no. You hired me as a dancer, not a bar hop.’ I didn’t drink. Men would say, ‘come on over and sit down,’ and I never would.”
She did have to eat, however, and at times she would run into men like Gleason and Martin hanging around the cafeteria on the ground floor of her Broadway hotel.
“I ordered a ham sandwich at the automat, and Jackie Gleason took it and started eating it,” remembered Hanham Dixon. “I didn’t know who he was at the time. He was working on Broadway, but not big like he became. I ran into him a few times. I would tell him that he owed me a ham sandwich. He would just laugh and not say anything.”
Martin, meanwhile, actually became a friend.
“He and Jerry Lewis were working together, and he was always hanging out at our hotel and running around with one of the dancers,” said Hanham Dixon. “He’d come up to our room on the fifth floor with a box of cookies. He was always hungry. He’d eat breakfast with all of us and then at 3 a.m. he’d be around having supper with us.”
Hanham Dixon took that nearly year-long gig in New York and turned it into a lifetime of work in the entertainment industry, much of it in the Midwest. She not only was a busy dancer and instructor, she also found plenty of opportunities to choreograph and direct major musicals at the regional level in and around Toledo, Ohio. She moved to the Buffalo area in 1984, where the dance troupe she oversaw worked halftime shows at Buffalo Bills games, and in 2005 she moved to Schenectady to be closer to her daughter, Connie Hanham-Cain. She gave lessons out of her house, often to seniors, before finally retiring as a dance instructor five years ago.
Her love of dancing began at an early age while growing up in Aurora, a city located in the larger metropolitan area of Chicago. She thinks her natural affinity for dance was inherited from an aunt in Russia.
“My mother’s sister danced at the academy in Russia, and my grandmother was a cook there and her daughters were always there with her,” said Hanham Dixon, who started out as Lillian Olar and danced for much of her career under that name. “I think they saw something in me so they allowed me to take some tap lessons.”
Growing up was tough in Pigeon Hill, but Hanham Dixon says she never knew how much.
“I was a Depression child, but I never realized how poor we were until I grew up,” she said. “But it was a happy childhood, and I was always dancing as a kid. People would come to a church affair, I would dance and they throw pennies at me. It was a great neighborhood made up of Romanian and Hungarian immigrants.”
Nina Radegnia Olar was Hanham Dixon’s mother, a Russian born into the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Christian faith in a town called Orenberg, located down on the Ural River in the southeastern section of the country. Her father, George, Olar, was Romanian, also an Orthodox Christian, and the couple met in Russia while Nina was trying to leave the country during the Russian Revolution. After marrying, the couple arrived in Ellis Island in October of 1921 and soon made their way to Aurora.
“My father was very knowledgeable about a lot of things, and he could speak six different languages and was very involved in our community,” Hanham Dixon said of her father. “He headed to Russia to fight in the Revolution, but it was endless and he knew it was of no use. They settled in Budapest for a while, but then they came to America, stayed in New York for a short time. Fortunately he had a brother who was a lawyer in Aurora, so he and my mom headed there.”
Hanham Dixon’s father made his living as a shoemaker and an actor, but unfortunately he died when Lillian was just 3. But along with her aunt’s passion for dance, Hanham Dixon also inherited some of her father’s love for the theater. She says her first “public performance” was when she was 6 at a church gathering, and by the time she entered high school she was totally immersed into the drama club. Before high school, however, her dancing career was almost abruptly halted.
“My mother told me I had to quit taking lessons because we couldn’t afford it, so she told me to go tell my dance teacher,” remembered Hanham Dixon.
“Well, my teacher was the owner of the place, and she knew I was good. I picked up things very quickly. So she talked to my mother, who ended up doing her laundry for her so I could keep dancing. Then when I was 12 I got a scholarship to the dance school so my mother didn’t have to continue doing her laundry,”
Hanham Dixon became an assistant instructor at the school while in her early teens, and the summer before her senior year she traveled throughout the Midwest on the state fair circuit, dancing at events in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Indiana. During that year she had also been taking lessons at the Mannion School of Dance in Chicago.
She was learning all different types of dance, and had already done some choreography for small shows, before taking the leap and heading to New York after she was done with high school.
She followed up her New York City experience with a steady gig in Cincinnati and other cities along the Ohio River.
“Cincinnati was like Las Vegas during that time,” she said. “There were a lot of mafia types around, and they’d be on these big riverboats doing a lot of gambling. Sometimes they would offer us money to play the slot machines, but I would say no. There were also burlesque dancers around, but they were wonderful. They would take care of us. When the musicians came around looking for girls, they’d say, ‘don’t come in here, the girls are all taking showers.’ They really did protect us.”
By the mid 1950s, Hanham Dixon was one of the top choreographers/directors in the Toledo area. She was in charge of productions that included classic Broadway musicals such as “Gypsy” and “The Music Man,” but she also directed and choreographed ballets and operas, including “The Nutcracker” and “Peter and the Wolf.”
“It was before there were videos, and my mom would see these shows once or twice or maybe the movie and then recall what she had to do to come up with for her own production,” said Connie Hanham-Cain. “Lillian was really sharp and had a real magic about her, and she was able to turn on that theater juice in a lot of people.”
Hanham-Cain was one of two siblings, but her mother also had a stepdaughter from a second marriage.
“Her life wasn’t always happy, but the theater saved her,” she said of her mom. “She loved it, she loved teaching, and a lot of her students ended up performing on Broadway.”
Also known as Lillian Dixon during her later career following a second marriage, Hanham Dixon’s students included television and stage actress Terria Joseph, the mother of Alicia Keys, and Reva Rice, whose credits include originating the role of Pearl in “Starlight Express” on Broadway. Both grew up in the Toledo area and started working with Hanham Dixon at a young age.
Hanham Dixon says she loved every minute of it, but still, nothing could top being in New York City for Christmas in 1944.
“Oh, what a wonderful time it was,” she said. “Living on the fifth floor of a hotel on Broadway and running around with all these people. Dean Martin was great. He never realized what a great voice he had. I also met Jimmy Durante and he was a real gentlemen. Victor Borge was hilarious, and Nat King Cole was so nice. Sinatra not so much. He was arrogant. And Sophie Tucker was horrible to us.”
Hanham Dixon, although her eyesight has deteriorated, still enjoys watching the stars, especially those on the popular television series, “Dancing with the Stars.”
“When you’re used too seeing good work, the mistakes really stick out,” she said. “I always watch ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ and I know who’s going to win right from the very start. Like I used to tell my seniors, ‘I may be legally blind, but I can see every mistake you make.’”