In the late 1950s Ron Tomlin was 14 years old and riding a streetcar through San Francisco when he saw a photograph hanging in a frame-shop window. He pulled the cord and hopped off the car. When his friend asked why, Tomlin said, “I just saw the most beautiful woman in my life.”
Running down Market Street, he stopped before the black-and-white image of a dark-haired beauty with movie star good looks—a little Elizabeth Taylor, a little Joan Crawford.
To his surprise, it was his mother.
This was how Tomlin knew his dancer mother throughout his early childhood—a gorgeous woman on display and at a distance.
“The most amazing thing I have in my life is this photograph,” says Tomlin, now in his 70s and sitting in his Las Vegas living room with the same photo before him, the very image that led to his own path as a professional photographer. “A photograph is sort of like music. If the photo is really great, it’s timeless.”
Born and raised in San Francisco, Tomlin’s mother became known as Dottie Dee and was on the road at age 18 with her own dance line. She arrived in Las Vegas in 1941 for a two-week performance at El Rancho as a La Bard Dancer, returning two years later for a gig at the Last Frontier.
In 1952, she and her husband moved into a house off Water Street in Henderson, where they lived while she worked as a dancer and choreographer with the Dottie Dee Dancers at El Rancho and he served as manager. Ron, who was raised by his grandmother in San Francisco, had moved in with his parents and younger brother by then, but says he rarely saw his mom until she retired from dancing in 1955 at age 32 and they moved to California.
Through newspaper clippings, publicity photos, pin-up shots, show programs and snapshots, his parents’ time in Las Vegas is well documented. There’s his dad on a chaise lounge by a hotel pool while his mom stands in a line of dancers with Lou Costello, the ladies all kicking up their legs. There’s his mom backstage with other dancers; there are showgirls; and there’s Abbott and Costello doing an act on a small stage. There’s even a photo of his mom on an El Rancho float in the Helldorado parade.
Dottie died this year at age 91, leaving Ron with the collection of photographs, which, along with her tap shoes, is the most important thing he says he owns. Some of his mother’s memorabilia sits in UNLV’s Special Collections, where she and dozens of other dancers have conducted oral histories. Joyce Moore, archivist at Special Collections, says visitors have come to the library to see, for the first time, images of their own mothers as dancers and showgirls. Tomlin says he’d like to see his mother return to the Strip—in an exhibit of photos from the past.