Manny was born in Lowell on November 18, 1909 the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores and was educated in the city’s school system. Growing up in a Portuguese household, music and performance was a vibrant part of Manny’s community. By the age of 14 he was appearing in leading parts in local plays. Dias furthered his zest for the stage after winning in an RKO Keith Theater audition allowing him to appear in one of the venue’s vaudeville shows. After completing school, Manny began performing regularly in dance and song numbers. Early on, he found that his splashy steps on stage caught quite a bit of attention and the number of his gigs grew. One news reporter described Dias as “elastic-limbed” while another asserted that he “sure had smooth foot work in letting loose… and we hope to see him again.” He was a popular dancer performing at Lowell’s Rialto Theater and at the more famous Commodore Ballroom. And he became a pro at Russian and Spanish dances, tap dancing, “Stage Jazz,” the Charleston… Manny even created his own new step called the “Corner Cutting Capers.”
Manny’s female impersonation led to a new welcomed notoriety. In the 1920s he performed as Señorita Juanita “the girl from sunny Spain” who always “promises a surprise at the finish” – i.e. the finale of the show where Manny disrobed to “become” a man. From 1924 until 1932, he was a frequent drag artist at the city’s Crown Theater and was advertised as a rival to the nationally known impersonator Tommy Martelle. The fame of Juanita led to a tour across the Midwest in the company of his agent Daniel Brennan. For many of his performances he would write little humorous sketches often about love and relationships. And in these shows, Dias would occasionally expand the boundaries of defining romance for his patrons. One short play, entitled The Truth Test, ends with the main character realizing that a woman he’s dating is actually a man who removes his wig and ends the skit by declaring, “I’m not the girl you think I am.”
“I Want to Get Married” was Manny’s most memorable chanson. Made famous originally by Gertrude Niesen performing as a stripper in the wartime Broadway hit, “Follow the Girls,” the number was considered to have racy lyrics for the time. Dias made it more suggestive, and to accentuate the song, Manny would wrap his leg around the microphone stand and rub his leg up and down it.
By 1931, Manny had decided to capitalize on his growing name recognition and opened up a dance studio in Lowell’s Mongeau Building across from City Hall. Welcoming both children and adults, the “Studio of Dance Hits” offered lessons in a variety of forms – Acrobatic, Stage, Toe, Adagio, Ballroom, and Soft Shoe. Health-conscious Dias even ran a “reducing class for women.” Within three years he had moved to a larger space at the Howe Building which could accommodate over 200 people and again moved over to the even bigger Rex Ballroom by 1938.
In 1950, Manny Dias, was barred from performing in Lowell as a result of his previous appearances as a female impersonator. Dias’ case was taken up by Brad Morse, a local lawyer who would eventually go on to become a Congressman. After multiple hearings before the license commission and support from local fans that began making phone calls in support of their favorite local entertainer,whom they applauded for his voluntary efforts entertaining service members and hospitalized vets during the war. In December of 1950, the dam finally broke and the Commission relented by removing the language in their rule about performers who had previously been impersonators. After almost nine months out of work Manny was back in action! Although his case did not repeal the commission’s “no female impersonator” rule, he was able to continue performing. Within the following month, Manny was performing again at the Haufbrau with an “All-Star Revue” offering two shows nightly. His popularity was undiminished and maybe even enhanced by citizens sympathetic to his long banishment from stage. In 1958, he performed at Happy Helen’s, billed as “Chiquita, the Cuban Bombshell.”
As time went on and age crept in, Manny shuttered his dance studio. He kept some odd jobs including as a bartender at the Derby Inn and as a dishwasher and “kitchenman” at the Owl Diner. By 1974, Manny was doing a few side gigs at Tyngsboro’s Banjo Pub where he would sing “your old favorites.” And a couple years later he performed a string of shows at Jan’s by the Lake through 1977. But musical tastes had changed for many and the Golden Boy’s golden days had passed. In his last few years Manny did not do much performing. Lowell’s favorite hometown entertainer had become sick with cancer even though he had quit smoking for 20 years. Manny Dias passed away in Lowell on October 22, 1981 at age 71. and there are some today who believe that he still “must be dancing up in the clouds.”
This website focuses on collections of photos and ephemera from Manny Diaz's personal scrapbooks.