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Same as it ever was: ‘Jubilee!’ remains a titanic ode to Las Vegas entertainment

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Sam Morris

Jubilee!” at Bally’s on Saturday, July 23, 2011.

Event

Don Arden's Jubilee!
  • Jubilee! Theater, 3645 Las Vegas Blvd South, Las Vegas
  • 18+ $65 - $132.50

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'Jubilee!' celebrates 30th Anniversary

John Katsilometes reports on 30 years of 'Jubilee!' for KSNV-TV.

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  • Jubilee, David Saxe and Tiger Martina
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"Jubilee!" at Bally's on Saturday, July 23, 2011.

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"Jubilee!" at Bally's on Saturday, July 23, 2011.

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"Fluff" LeCoque, 88, a former dancer for Donn Arden, has been the manager of "Jubilee!" since it debuted 28 years ago at Baily's in Las Vegas. LeCoque is seen in her office Thursday, July 23, 2009.

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"Jubilee!" at Bally's on Saturday, July 23, 2011.

Jubilee! 2011

Launch slideshow »

‘Jubilee!’ Through the Years

Launch slideshow »

Jubilee! 30th Anniversary Pink Carpet and Show

The 30th anniversary performance of Jubilee! at Bally's Las Vegas on July 30, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Jubilee! 30th Anniversary Exhibit by Denise Truscello

Jubilee! at Bally's photographed by Denise Truscello in May and June of 2011 for the show's 30th anniversary on The Strip. Launch slideshow »

When it opened in August 1981 at the old MGM Grand, there was nothing else like it.

Thirty years on, still, there is nothing else like it.

“Jubilee!” is Las Vegas’ own treasure chest filled with sequins, crystals and finely feathered costumes. The contents have hardly changed in the decades since the grand chest was flung open 30 years ago to a mouths-agape public that had never witnessed such a spectacle.

One hundred and twenty-six performers, tall, toothy and unwaveringly graceful, paraded across the stage. On opening night, “Jubilee!” was the largest show ever in Las Vegas. The showgirls, topless and tantalizing, stood high on heels while balancing headgear as large as birdcages and performed with seemingly painless precision.

Men were dropped into this big box, too, sporting blush-worthy, studded codpieces (where the term “suspicious package” has always carried a unique meaning) and bedazzled tuxedos.

But the men have always craned not to be overshadowed by the pure scope of it all.

The great showroom then was known as Ziegfeld Theater, and the show’s opening helped the MGM Grand return to form after the terrible fire at the hotel that claimed 85 lives just nine months earlier. In rehearsals at the time of the fire and nearly a year behind schedule, “Jubilee!” finally strode in to replace another showgirls-peppered show, “Hallelujah Hollywood,” which had closed after six years at the old MGM.

Six years for such a show seemed an eternity. “Jubilee!” at first was not viewed as a long-term hit production. It’s not that the show that billed its creator, Donn Arden, above its very title lacked legs.

“Opening night was incredible,” said current “Jubilee!” assistant company manager Diane Palm, a showgirl in the production’s original cast. “The line stretched all the way through the casino with people trying to get into the show.”

But nobody in that audience thought in terms of decades for a production where shameless grandiosity ruled the night. Asked if anyone felt “Jubilee!” might span 30 years and straddle two centuries, the show’s company manager and resident legend of dance Ffolliott “Fluff” LeCoque responded with the swift force of a high leg kick.

“Absolutely not,” said the 88-year-old LeCoque, who started as a dancer for Arden more than a half century ago. “We thought it would last six years at the most. “ ‘Hallelujah Hollywood’ lasted that long. Nobody thought ‘Jubilee!’ would be any different.”

Oh, but “Jubilee!” has always been different. Big time.

**

Today, the show encompasses seven acts in 90 minutes, a bit shorter than when it opened 30 years ago but still an effective tribute to the type of Vegas show Steve Martin was referring to on “Let’s Get Small” when he observed, “There’s a million people onstage, and everything’s moving really fast, and you can’t understand a word they’re saying, but it doesn’t matter, and you’re just sitting there going, ‘Wow! Look at the (breasts)! I’ll bet there’s … 57 breasts up there!”

Since “Folies Bergere,” similar in style but comparatively scaled back, closed in 2009, “Jubilee!” stands alone as the traditional showgirl production in Las Vegas. Many strode from the stage before then, including Arden’s “Hallejulah Hollywood,” “Lido de Paris” at Stardust, “Casino de Paris” at the Dunes and “Hello America” and “Pzazz,” both at Desert Inn.

“Folies” was a particularly difficult closing for many in the “Jubilee!” family to observe. Having turned “moldy,” to use the parlance of the industry, the production at Tiffany Theater at the Tropicana collapsed just before its 50th birthday.

“We were the last two shows that were all about showgirls and big production numbers, with the guys as singers and the whole nine yards,” LeCoque recalls. “ ‘Folies’ was timeless in Europe and here. But you see, many times in shows, when the spark just isn’t there anymore.”

The flame in “Jubilee!” remains ignited largely because the cast must consent to an onstage review every six months, when producers hold auditions for fresh performers. The more than 1,000 costumes are meticulously cleaned and repaired. Upgrades are frequent. This weekend, a new set of costumes for the brazen “Titanic” number are being unveiled. That number and the tale of Samson and Delilah have been signature scenes since the show began.

In pure numbers, “Jubilee!” still rivals the grandest Las Vegas spectacles.

Its stage is 90 feet high and the width of half a football field. The cast has been drawn down some from the original 126, but there are still 85 cast members, and Team Jubilee numbers 165.

More than 8,000 miles of sequins have been used in the production, and the famous boast is there was a worldwide shortage of Swarovski crystals in 1981 because so many were being used to create “Jubilee!” costumes. Many of those lavish garments, with headdresses nearly as large as baby cribs and weighing as much as 22 pounds, have been designed by Bob Mackie and today are the creation of Pete Menefee. A total of 18 staffers in the show’s wardrobe department keep the “Jubilee!” costumes in top condition.

The show’s cost, originally, was a then-unheard-of $10 million, and it is still a very expensive show to stage. The cost of each of the showgirl costumes in the “Red Feather” scene that closes the show, set to a medley of Cole Porter standards, is $7,000 apiece. The rhinestone-studded tuxedos worn by the men are $10,000 each.

Thus, the costume outlay alone in “Jubilee!” runs in the millions. And, as showgirl Katie James noted in a column written for Vegas DeLuxe and the Las Vegas Sun this month, that cost is discounting the 125 miles of wiring, the 100 sets and backdrops, the 4,200 pounds of dry ice used weekly for smoke effects and the 10 pounds of explosives needed for the 50 pyrotechnic effects used each night.

As you watch “Jubilee!” unfold, probably at the point that the sinking of Titanic is re-enacted to a splashy climax, you wonder how this show can possibly remain financially viable. It does not sell out every performance, certainly, but has the power of volume with performances each evening (including a “covered” performance Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.). Also, “Jubilee!” is the rare show that is not four-walled, where the hotel space is leased by an independent company that puts on the production. The show is owned by the hotel, so Bally’s -- and, at the top, Caesars Entertainment -- is literally invested in what is unfurled onstage.

And it is self-sufficient, hotel executives say.

“I can’t give you the specific financials, but we are in the black,” Bally’s Director of Entertainment Carlos Reynoso says. “We just did a costume renovation. The quality of the show is still very high. It’s an iconic show, and anybody who comes to Vegas who wants to see something that’s synonymous with Vegas will want to see this show. It is viable for that reason because you come away amazed.”

The quality of the individuals in the costumes sets the show apart, too. There are stringent physical requirements, with the women’s minimum height limit at 5 feet 8 inches and the men at 6 feet. There are no specified weight limits, but all cast members know to maintain the form that got them hired.

“You have to keep your weight off, or in some cases, keep your weight up,” current “Jubilee!” showgirl Katie Currow says. “You don’t want to change your appearance in the show.”

Also disqualified are women who have undergone breast augmentation. “You can tell even from the audience those who have had that done,” Palm says -- or who have been inked with body art. It makes little sense to dress a showgirl in a $7,000 costume of feathers and rhinestones, only to see a unicorn displayed on her derriere.

“We had one instance in our last auditions where we had a very beautiful, well-trained dancer, but we couldn’t take her,” Palm says. “She had a tattoo that stretched all the way across her back.”

Lost in the parade of costumes is the dancing acumen of the cast members. Some casual observers often mistake any costumed women, such as those who have flanked Oscar Goodman during his three terms as Las Vegas mayor, for showgirls.

“I don’t want to be critical, but those are models,” Palm reminds. “Showgirls in this show are trained dancers, and it takes a lot of training and physical strength to perform in these costumes.”

As proof, Palm pulls a costume piece -- a feathery, rhinestone-studded sleeve -- and asks me to drape it over my right arm.

OK, heavy. At least 15 pounds.

“Now lift your leg and keep it there,” she instructs.

Ugh.

“Hold still,” she directs.

Doing it.

“Oh, and keep smiling,” she reminds.

It’s a grimace.

“You get injuries in this show,” Currow said. “I’ve had a hip injury. I had a foot injury that took me out for a month.”

“These are trained dancers,” LeCoque says. “They are not just modeling costumes. They need to kick over heads and do the splits, all of that.”

**

‘Jubilee!’ anniversary in Las Vegas Sun print

Front page, Las Vegas Sun; Friday, July 29, 2011 Launch slideshow »

Being a showgirl is not always pretty.

“It takes a lot of coaching and understanding to make a showgirl,” LeCoque says. “It takes a lot of work and patience to make a performer do all the repetitious work, but that is why ‘Jubilee!’ has worked.”

LeCoque is asked how many times she has seen the show.

“Oh, I can’t tell you what that number is,” she says, chuckling. “I’ll tell you it’s six shows a week for 30 years.”

By that math, it’s 9,360 performances.

“I never get tired of watching the show,” she says, cutting off the next, obvious question. “It’s so varied in its production and ideas. There is constant movement, changes in scenery and costume changes. There are different styles in every number. It’s one kaleidoscope after another.”

And it never stops, this kaleidoscope of kitschy-yet-serious entertainment. It spins forever, at its own pace in its own space. It is a treasure trove of Vegas history, onstage every night.

It is “Jubilee!”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow "Kats With the Dish" at twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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