The collection consists of contracts and documents, photographs, programs, correspondence, typescripts, and sheet music related to the performances of Jessica Dixon and her husband, Frank Freeman. Several parts of the collection refer to their “train sketch” prooduction, “A Minute Late.” There are numerous publicity photographs of themselves and other vaudeville performers, and glass transparencies used for publicity in theaters. There is also a substantial sheet music collection.
A memo booklet includes entries by Jessica Dixon of her tour in Europe in 1919-20, with expenses, songs performed at various camps, names and addresses of some servicemen she met, and a handwritten score for “Keep the home-fires burning”, as well as later entries of poetry, lyrics, and inspirational texts, with some entries in a different hand. There are handwritten chronologies for both Dixon and Freeman. There is also an interview, clipping, and list of film and television credits for their daughter, the actress Kathleen Freeman.
This collection documents the careers of Jessica Dixon (b.1888), a soprano singer known as “The Overseas Girl” at the end of World War I as she entertained American troops in England, France and post-war Germany; and Frank Freeman (b.1884), “The Minstrel Man,” who headed Freeman’s Forty Musical Minstrels in 1918.
Jessica began her professional career ca. 1910 as a soloist for two Methodist churches in Los Angeles in their annual mission play but she soon began to perform with significant orchestras as “Miss Dixon, Dramatic Soprano”. Performing in vaudeville came next, working with low-paying impressario Bert Levy’s circuits within California. In 1916, with World War I looming, the Over There Theatre League petitioned the YMCA (then in charge of arranging overseas entertainment) to put together a troupe of entertainers led by Jessica to go to the front lines to perform for the AEF or Allied Expeditionary Forces, then battling the axis powers in Europe.
Her touring group, the Philharmonic Four, consisted of pianist Kathleen Morris, violinist Harriet gates, music reader Florence Redfield and Jessica. They performed for the duration of the war and even beyond, receiving commendations for their devotion to the troupes. Upon her return she found that she was floundering a bit, having expended valuable career-building time in the service of her country overseas and not getting the major opera appointments she may have desired. Nor was vaudeville a perfect venue for her ultra high class material.
She spent some time on vaudeville circuits and in musical theatre before dedicating herself increasingly to vaudeville but needing a hook to make her name remembered she began to refer to herself as The Overseas Girl, touting the time she spent supporting the military in World War I.
Frank Freeman on the other hand was a very different sort of entertainer. Growing up as a minstrel entertainer, he became an end man, one of the several important positions for cracking jokes, in the famous minstrel shows of Lew Dockstader, who was in his time the most important and renowned of blackface entertainers. To be a key member of his troupe was a much coveted and significant position. Both Jessica and Frank were in popular entertainment but at polar opposites. They had met, fallen in love and married by the end of the war but faced the problem of creating an act together. They began with emphasis on Jessica, and were billed as Jessica Dixon, The Overseas Girl, Assisted by Frank Freeman but soon the act was changed to The Overseas Girl and The Minstrel Man.
From 1922 to 1930 they toured together as Dixon & Freeman, described as “The Singer & The Minstrel” or “The Overseas Girl and That Minstrel Fellow”, performing musical theater. They performed a form of blackface called “black and tan” (him black, her tan). In the early to mid 1920s they did reasonably well earning $25 a night and $225 per week for their act and they played quality venues. After this time their earnings and venues began to slip a rung or two, down to $10-15 a night and as movies replaced much of vaudeville and radio increased in popularity and the Depression hit full force, the team of Freeman and Dixon had to take part-time jobs or seek stretches of non-vaudeville employment to get by.
In the mid-1920s they changed names for some venues and identified themselves as The Van Gordons. Their young daughter Kathleen (1919-2001) accompanied them on the road, and began performing with them at the age of two. After the end of the vaudeville trail, Dixon subsequently taught voice in Los Angeles; Freeman served as president of the California Artists’ Protective Association. But there the trail goes cold and where they spent their final days or even if they spent them together is not known. Daughter Kathleen, who became a Tony-nominated stage actress, a television and movie character comedienne and a regular staple of American entertainment for many decades, has now also passed on but the family has left behind an impressive legacy in the entertainment field. Kathleen was a staple for over 50 years in show business, appearing as comic foil in shows such as Hogan’s Heroes, Beverly Hillbillies, The Lucy Show and, just before her death, scoring a sensation in The Full Monty. Despite having lung cancer, she continued to perform until just some days before overcome and hospitalized by her disease and making a reluctant exit from this world at the age of what most people think was 82.