Las Vegas Sun

September 1, 2014

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Columnist Jack Sheehan: On the gradual disappearance of the statuesque icons, symbols of Vegas

Jack Sheehan is a Las Vegas author. He writes a column every other week for the Sun.

Last October, for the 15th time, I interviewed the champion of our annual PGA Tour event for the crowd surrounding the 18th green at the Tournament Players Club at Summerlin. This past year it happened to be a 41-year-old rookie from Texas named Wes Short Jr.

Wes was a Tin Cup sort, a likable guy who had worked at backwater driving ranges and played all the smaller circuits including the Hooters Tour, and when we handed him the check for $720,000, he immediately announced that he was going to pay off the mortgage on his double-wide -- excuse me -- his house. I didn't ask Wes whether he kept a spare engine block in the old bathtub on his front porch, but I was tempted.

Short was so surprised to have won a big event like ours that he was damn near speechless, which is not a good thing if your job as interviewer is to pull all sorts of sparkling quotes from the big winner.

Normally, when we have a tongue-tied champion, I just turn to one of the two stunning showgirls who traditionally join us for the ceremonies and engage them in some trivial banter for the crowd. This always goes over big, because in Las Vegas we love showgirls more than almost any other creatures.

Showgirls are a civic icon here, the true symbols of our city, and they are as closely associated with Las Vegas as are blonde starlets in tight sweaters with Hollywood. Which is why I found it disconcerting and perhaps why Wes came up short on dialogue when we found that the showgirls we know and love had been replaced in the 2005 ceremony by something resembling an overcooked marshmallow.

It was, of course, the Michelin Man, and while I certainly can't fault the tournament-sponsoring brain trust at Michelin for using their corporate symbol, I for one missed the hell out of the showgirls. Rumor has it they'll return next year, taller and leggier and more regal than ever, and I can't wait to snuggle between them with a microphone in my hand and pretend like the girls and I go way back even though I will probably not have known them for more than five minutes prior to the proceedings.

We don't have nearly as many showgirls in Las Vegas today as we once did, although both the Folies Bergere at the Tropicana and Les Femmes at the MGM are doing a wonderful job keeping these community icons front and center. But there was a time when being a Las Vegas showgirl was a huge deal and brought with it all the glamour and panache of being a supermodel on the catwalks of Paris.

It's heartening to realize that the Folies opened in Las Vegas on Christmas Eve, 1959, and the show is still playing. Five years old is ancient in this town, and 10 years qualifies as prehistoric. With 20 years, we start checking carbon samples, and yet here is a show in its 47th year! The revue has outlasted about a dozen hotels in that span, and has not changed dramatically in its concept or presentation.

It is a forgotten piece of local trivia that the man who brought the Folies' girls here from Paris was Lou Walters, the father of Barbara. Lou actually traveled to France and flew the girls back with him. The concept of the show today is to present statuesque women, tall enough to carry a costume and be a piece of living scenery, but also versatile enough to dance and participate in some of the routines.

In the early days, a few of the girls achieved true celebrity status. A case in point is Felicia Atkins, a former star of the Folies in the '50s, '60s and '70s, who was the most publicized showgirl in Las Vegas history.

For 17 years, Felicia represented to the world everything it thought a showgirl should be, and more. With her raven hair, dark eyes, full lips and overwhelming bosom, Felicia was the unattainable woman that the guy from Poughkeepsie would take home in his dreams. She looked like a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins, with the body of Pamela Anderson.

Within a year of her winning a spot in the show in 1957, Felicia's role expanded from stunning mannequin to mistress of ceremonies, and she announced from the stage all of the stars who headlined the Folies, among them Ernie Kovaks, Eddie Fisher, Yvonne DeCarlo and Jayne Mansfield. She also played straight woman to comedians in the show.

Later on, Felicia toured the country as an official spokesperson for the hotel, posing for publicity pictures with Tropicana customers, doing interviews, and by her very presence revealing to the world the magic and beauty that was Las Vegas.

It also won't surprise you to know that she dated Elvis. Felicia once showed me pictures of the two of them together and they looked like more than friends. (Oddly, I've met at least 20 other women of my approximate age who claim to have dated The King. If half of them are telling the truth, Elvis was in Wilt Chamberlain's league for conquests.)

"A lot of people think of the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign when they think of our city," says Ginny Murphy, the recently retired producer of the Folies Bergere. "But it's showgirls who really always welcomed people to Las Vegas. In the early days, in the late 50s and 60s, many shows had signature girls who would greet their high rollers and actually be a part of the advertising campaign for Las Vegas."

Murphy then mentions how Mayor Goodman takes a showgirl with him when campaigning major league baseball owners to consider bringing a team here, or merely when he's promoting the city as the greatest on Earth. "And don't even bring up that horrible movie called Showgirls to our dancers here," Ginny Murphy told me. "They'll hit you with a high heel."

I know darn well if I polled all the professional golfers who come here to chase the dimpled spheroid across the Bermuda-grass lawns of Las Vegas, they would say that the Michelin Man is fine for selling rubber for your race car, but when it comes to smiling for pictures and planting a kiss on the winner's cheek, they'd much prefer a showgirl.