Las Vegas Sun

October 25, 2014

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Last legs

Sequined dancers lie on the stage as it lowers them in front of an audience eager to be mesmerized by mystique and beauty. Swirls of orange and pink feathers come to life, fluttering and fading into a blur of a single graceful movement.

They are showgirls, the epitome of vintage Vegas. Their elegance and glamour are one of the city's enduring images.

But Las Vegas has changed, trading nostalgia for megaresorts with bigger and some say better entertainment.

Decades after the showgirl became a Las Vegas icon, only two major, traditional productions remain. They still draw crowds, but the days of the showgirl might be numbered.

"We seem to be dwindling to give way to different kinds of shows," says Linda Green, who at 48, has been a showgirl in "Jubilee" since it debuted in 1981 at Bally's.

In the 1950s the Strip seemed overwhelmed with showgirls. Girls batted their false eyelashes and bobbed their enormous headpieces at just about every major casino along Las Vegas Boulevard by 1960.

"They emblazoned beauty in that day and age," says Hal Rothman, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "It had a lot to do with the nature of American culture at that time."

They were tall, charming and wonderfully decorated in a way that defines Las Vegas bright feathers, overdone headdresses and slinky, sparkling costumes. They paraded across stages, wooing audiences not so much by their talent, but by being mannequin-like women on display. They were topless, but not sleazy.

Showgirls soon had a place in the city's history and in the nation's imagination.

Christiane LeBon was 29 when she left a show in Miami to become a Las Vegas showgirl in "Folies Bergere," opening at the Tropicana in 1959.

She was appalled to learn she was expected to go topless, so she protested until the producers finally let her wear "pasties" to cover herself.

Now 71, she still remembers every musical number, every step. Often she breaks into song.

"If you're longing to be kissed, then a girl should resist!" she sings, reminiscing in the "Folies" dressing room. "It's nostalgic. You wish you would be again onstage."

LeBon performed in hundreds of shows, meeting such stars as Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, and always wearing her pasties.

"There is a magic of the 'Folies Bergere,' " she says.

But the show is a rarity in Las Vegas. While every other show featuring showgirls from that era disappeared, along with some of the major casinos of the 1950s and '60s, "Folies" endured, becoming the longest-running show on the Strip.

"Jubilee" debuted rather late for showgirl shows, but still early enough to become part of the tradition.

It is an hour until show time, and the 60 showgirls of "Jubilee" -- and even some showboys -- trickle in to their dressing rooms. For all the glamour they show onstage, backstage is anything but. No thick makeup yet, no trademark false eyelashes; those outrageously heavy headpieces are still on shelves.

The life of a showgirl is a tiring schedule. At "Jubilee" and "Folies," the casts perform two shows each night, six times a week. Same routine, same songs, same costumes.

Singers, acrobats and dancers, some topless, some covered, prance through a variety of scenes in the shows. In "Jubilee" a scaled-down replica of the Titanic sinks and the tragic story of Samson and Delilah is re-enacted. Dancers in "Folies" perform ballet, a fun cancan number and scenes showing how women have changed through the years.

Today's showgirls are different from the women of the '50s and '60s. "The women in the shows are much more athletic, trained dancers," Rothman says. "They're much more integral to the shows."

Showgirls used to be regarded as Vegas royalty and were often introduced to top entertainers. But that has changed, too.

"I think the town has changed," says Lucy Boling, 37, a showgirl in "Folies."

"The town was a lot smaller. They were all treated like stars. Now we're only glamorous when we're onstage."

Blair Farrington, who runs a production company that produces several shows in Las Vegas, says it's the shows, not showgirls that have gone out of fashion.

"It's just that the entertainment product hasn't kept up," he says. "The shows are kind of a slice of the past. They can really just rely on the fact that 'we are the old Las Vegas.' "

Other casinos leave the showgirls to Bally's and the Tropicana.

"Our perspective is those are historic pieces, not what Las Vegas is looking for today," says Alan Feldman, spokesman for MGM MIRAGE, the largest owner of hotel-casinos in Las Vegas.

Farrington, who also owns a costume company, keeps a big stock of showgirl costumes and a troupe of showgirls themselves who are hired for conventions, private events and to meet guests at the airport.

He said he believes that while showgirl shows are fading, they could reappear on the ever-changing Strip.

"It's like a cycle. It'll come back. In the meantime, people will just have to find them where they can," he says. "I don't think Vegas will ever completely divorce itself from the image of a showgirl."

Another performance of "Jubilee" begins, and the dancers scurry to put on their backpacks of bright feathers. Showgirls transform the stage into a sea of sparkling rhinestones and waving feathers. They stretch their arms out and seem to float across the stage, smiling and flaunting their charm.

Some of the costumes and routines in both shows beg to be updated, but tourists don't seem to mind. This is a different kind of entertainment, a throwback to old Vegas that somehow has maintained its place on the Strip.

Back in the "Folies" dressing room, LeBon, the retired showgirl, leaves the room and a new generation makes its way to the vanity tables.

The curtain rises on another show and the alluring showgirls fan out on the stage, mesmerizing, twinkling, and, at least for now, continuing this threatened tradition.

"I think there's still an expectation when you come to Vegas to see a showgirl," Boling says. "For that reason, 'Folies' and 'Jubilee' will survive."