Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2014

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Still opulent and extravagant, the ‘Folies Bergere’ celebrates the big Four-O

They won't go silently into the night. They still claim it with kicks and twirls in the longest-running production show on the Las Vegas Strip, the "Folies Bergere" at the Tropicana hotel-casino.

Saturday at the Tiffany Theatre the show celebrates 40 years of kickin' it up for more than 15 million visitors. (A special closed-to-the-public performance, to be attended by former cast members, will be given by the current cast.)

The "Folies" graced the stage for the first time Dec. 11, 1959 in the Fountain Theatre at the Tropicana, now the high-limit slots area. The famous French review was brought over the Atlantic by Lou Walters, Barbara Walters' father. Originally, the topless showgirls descended from the ceiling on carousel horses. It is rumored that the horses still rest in their stalls above the casino floor.

The show has been the host of legends. Gene Kelly hammed it up for photographers with a handful of "Folies" ladies after a late show at the Fountain Theatre, which was once Sammy Davis Jr.'s digs. In the 1964 film "Viva Las Vegas," Elvis Presley used a few of the bright-light city babes from the "Folies" to set his soul on fire.

The new musical was one of the earliest production shows to epitomize the classic Las Vegas showgirl. Former cast members in town for the reunion remember the heyday of hip, when Las Vegas could simply "wow" tourists with its mystique.

Pamela Kriechbaumer, a showgirl from 1964-68, said that one particular memory stands out: when she walked on stage and peered out over the crowd to see "Elvis Presley and Priscilla in the audience."

Karen Orduno, a glitter-clad showgirl from 1970, remembered on-stage pranks such as "tying ostrich tail feathers between dancers without their knowledge."

Pamela English dipped and twirled in the "Folies" from 1976-79 and fondly reminisces about "flowers, backstage ... going to a Sammy Davis (Jr.) party."

Mike Rome, a principal singer from 1983-91, recalls with a bit of mischievous glee, "showgirls and dancers falling in the pit and carrying on as if they hadn't missed a step!"

Susan Tobey and Bill Garbett recently revealed stories of their time as "Folies" folk while sitting in the backstage dressing room. Both began performing in 1977 -- she as a leggy showgirl and he as the lead singer. On- or off-stage, they were young local celebrities in a town that placed its performers on pedestals.

"The 'Folies' is indigenous to Las Vegas," Tobey said. "We are one of the mainstays here in Las Vegas. A lot of people want to see the lasers and the tigers but when you think of Las Vegas, (you) think of showgirls."

The concept of scantily clad or topless showgirls was new in the middle of the century, when sex was still a taboo subject. When "Folies" ditched the pasties for, well, nothing above the waist, it was scandalous.

"There was such a buzz when that happened," Tobey said. "There weren't that many shows in town. To be a showgirl in Las Vegas in the '50s, '60s, '70s and even '80s was a real luxury."

"It was not ... 'corporate,' " Garbett said, eluding to the Tropicana's alleged Mafia ties. "It was a whole family atmosphere in those days."

"It was a lot more elegant, too," Tobey said. "People dressed when they came to see the show. After work we would go out, leave our show makeup on because we wanted to be recognized as show people."

They were welcomed and revered at some of the hot night clubs of the day, such as Jubilation, Tramps and the Brewery. "You'd see the people say 'Oh! Here they come!' We were like stars," Tobey said.

"We created atmosphere," Garbett added.

Revved up from the show, and a few drinks in between, the cast and crew of shows along the Strip would mingle after work. When the show's run would stop for revamping of the production (which happened every eight years or so), the cast would go all out in the last performance before shutting down.

"We used to get away with murder," Tobey said. "We'd wear the wrong costumes, we'd wear sunglasses, Bill dressed up in drag, one girl wore a diaper on the back of her costume, just crazy stuff. The last performance of a show was sold out."

Between and after shows, the cast would mingle with customers at the bar or leisurely dine at the hotel's gourmet room, called Rhapsody. "We were a presence in the hotel," Tobey said. "The 'Folies' were such a big part of the hotel."

But times have changed.

"Now, (showgirls) wash their faces, rip off their eyelashes after work and they are out of here in jeans and T-shirts (using) the back door. It's just a whole other era," Tobey said.

The old days did have their stressful moments, however. Every six months each cast member's contract was up for review. They were weighed and given write-ups if they were over their desired weight by even five pounds.

"I have a weight notice in my scrapbook," Tobey said, her lithe frame tucked in a chair surrounded by the same accessories she once wore: silky gloves, jeweled thongs, velvet bras.

"I have four or five hundred," Garbett said. "As a singer I was always covered so I could hide a myriad of problems. But they would call me in and say 'Bill you are looking a little snug in that jumpsuit, better lay off the pepperoni pizza!' "

For one number, Garbett wore a tight white jump suit. After a few "pizza pounds," he felt the suit shrinking. He asked wardrobe to sneak stretch panels into the thighs of the suit so that the stage manager couldn't tell he'd gained a bit of weight.

"That lasted for another couple of months until the stretch panels stretched out," Garbett said. "But I could hide it. The showgirls can't hide anything behind a G-string and a bra,"

"Back then, you could still work if you were a little bit overweight," Tobey said. "Now you are just out of the show. They'd give you a couple of weeks to lose it and they'd take you in the office and weigh you."

Felecia Atkins was the longest-running showgirl of the time, performing at the Tropicana for 18 1/2 years. Atkins was recently inducted into the Casino Legends Hall of Fame at the Tropicana.

"Felecia Atkins was in an era when showgirls were voluptious," Garbett said. "Now they are like beanpoles."

"It's part of the job," Tobey said. "The audience doesn't want to be looking up on stage and pointing to the heavy girl in the corner. Everyone has to keep up appearances."

"When you are in the show you are hired for a specific look and so that's one of the reasons I got the job," the over 6-foot-tall Garbett said. "If I was only 5-6 they would never hire me, I'm surrounded by (tall) showgirls."

"The male singers can stay longer than the showgirls can," Tobey, who left the "Folies" when she was 40, said. "It's an age thing, I hate to say it. You know when you come into this business that you are not going to stay in it forever."

But why do the dancers stay so long?

"People never leave these spots, especially if you are a lead," Garbett said. "It's a real coup."

Instead, performers tend to settle down, buy a home, start a family, maybe land a nice day job. "They want to stay here," Tobey said. "It pays well. You don't have to beat work until 7 o'clock at night. You can be home by 12:30 and work during the day as a model, convention work, have another business."

"It's the only way in show business to lead a somewhat normal life," Garbett said.

"It's a short-lived career and that's why they will be here at night and go to UNLV during the day," Tobey said. "We have college graduates and mothers and teachers."

Tobey stayed with the "Folies" for 13 years and retired in 1990. The long-legged blonde climbed the corporate ladder to become the Tropicana showroom manager. Garbett also retired from the spotlight and backs up his longtime friend as the showroom assistant manager.

They both say that an abundance of Strip shows are jockeying for attention in a more family-friendly Las Vegas. Today's showgirls have also become serious dancers rather than the glamour gals of the past.

"Back then showgirls graced the stage," Tobey said. Adds Garbett good-naturedly: "They couldn't chew gum and walk at the same time."

"It's a whole other ballgame now," Tobey said.

Although competing Strip shows use dancers in glittering leotards, and feathered boas may occasionally drape the shoulders of smiling showgirls, Garbett said the "Folies" show is a mainstay on the Strip -- for now.

" 'The Folies' now is historically great, but it's like an institution," he said. "It gives the 'old Las Vegas' feel. There's no way we could compete with (Bellagio's) 'O,' there's just no way. That's a new generation (of shows)."

But with "Folies," Las Vegas does hold onto a piece of its past.