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August 28, 2014

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On the strip :

Last of the red-hot showgirls

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Steve Marcus

Dancers perform a strip tease during a “covered” performance of “Folies Bergere” at the Tropicana. “Folies,” inspired by shows at the Folies Bergere Theatre in Paris, opened at the Tropicana in 1959.

The two dazzling shows are museum pieces, windows into Las Vegas’ glamorous past when feathers, furs and sequins barely covered leggy showgirls.

It’s hard to look at the scantily clad young dancers in “Folies Bergere” and “Donn Arden’s Jubilee!” and think of them as relics. But they perform in the last of the extravagant topless productions that helped propel a small desert town into the league of Paris, London and New York when it came to brilliant entertainment.

For decades endless rows of chorus lines helped gamblers forget their losses at the tables. The productions featured countless specialty acts from around the world, many of which rose from the ranks — such as Siegfried & Roy and Lance Burton — to become headliners. It was a heady period for ambitious young musicians, who worked two or more gigs a night and performed from sundown to sunup in orchestras and bands from one end of town to the other.

“Folies Bergere” turns 50 next year, and “Donn Arden’s Jubilee!” just celebrated its 27th anniversary. There weren’t as many resorts in Las Vegas when “Folies” and “Jubilee!” were in their infancy, but most of them had topless spectacles.

The relatively modest “Minsky’s Follies” was first, opening at the Dunes in 1957.

Donn Arden’s “Le Lido de Paris Revue” set the standard for Las Vegas showgirls when it debuted at the Stardust on June 23, 1959, with a cast and crew from the Lido Club in Paris. It ran until 1991. Six months after “Lido” opened, the Tropicana premiered “Folies Bergere.”

Other lavish stage productions of the past half-century included “La Parisienne,” “Casino de Paris,” “City Lites,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Viva les Girls” — not to mention topless ice capades such as “Nudes on Ice,” “Playgirls on Ice,” “Ecstasy on Ice,” “Rhythm on Ice,” “Follies on Ice” and “Spice on Ice.”

Now there are two.

Besides their longevity they have something else in common that is now rare — each is owned by its venue, “Folies” by the Tropicana and “Jubilee!” by Bally’s/Harrah’s Entertainment.

Critics say the sequin- and rhinestone-laden Las Vegas icons were kitschy excesses — gaudy, garish and tasteless.

But there is no denying the glamour and the excitement generated by the productions.

“Folies” and “Jubilee!” are glamorous time capsules worth stepping into if you would like to experience Las Vegas history that is still very much alive and kicking.

Keeping them entertained during costume changes

For six minutes during “Folies Bergere,” Bing and Jun Long fold themselves inside barrels, dive through hoops, juggle and climb poles.

They are 5-foot-2 and pencil thin — a sharp contrast to the statuesque showgirls.

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At the Tropicana's Tiffany Theatre, Chinese-American twin contortionists Jun, left, and Bing Long entertain in "Folies Bergere."

Specialty acts always have been a short but important part of spectacular Las Vegas productions. Jugglers, acrobats, comedians and magicians provide an interlude, allowing a few minutes for scene and costume changes.

The 40-year-old Long twins performed in “Jubilee!” for six years before recently joining the cast of “Folies.”

Born and raised in southwest China, they were 9 years old when the Chinese government picked them to attend a school for the performing arts. The Longs graduated at the head of their class and were among the top performers in China when they visited San Francisco in 1994 under a cultural exchange program. They landed a gig on a cruise ship to Alaska, where they heard about a place called Las Vegas.

They were hired for “Imagine,” Dick Foster’s spectacular show at the Luxor. When the show closed in 2000 they went to Atlantic City, Branson, Mo., and Hawaii before returning to Las Vegas.

Now American citizens, they occasionally visit China.

Things there are rapidly changing, they say. Students now must pay tuition to attend the performing arts school. The country is dominated by American films and TV shows.

“Young people are losing their culture,” Bing Long says. “Older people say things are changing too fast. Younger people say they are changing too slow.”

‘Folies Bergere’ choreographer gives audience more substance than sizzle

“Folies Bergere” springs to life with lively dancing and singing on a small, simple stage at the Tropicana.

Compared with the excess of “Jubilee!” “Folies” — with a cast of 44 dancers — is subtle, though just as glamorous and exciting.

“Both are spectaculars. They’re different,” says legendary choreographer Jerry Jackson, who has directed and choreographed “Folies” since 1975.

“The costumes in ‘Jubilee!’ cost far more than ours. They do heavy costumes and scenery — the emphasis is on that rather than dancing.

“I’m more interested in current events as well as history. The present ‘Folies’ has a lap dance section and a new hip-hop number.”

“Folies” always has featured singers, including Bobbie Gentry and Claudine Longet. Felice Garcia, a 21-year-old student at UNLV, is the current lead vocalist.

Lou Walters, father of newswoman Barbara Walters, brought the Vegas version of the Paris production to town in 1959 when he was the Tropicana’s entertainment director.

After nearly 50 years, second- and third-generation fans are attending shows, says Tropicana entertainment director Elaine Celario, who started as a dancer with “Folies” in 1983. “The best thing the ‘Folies’ does is tie it all together. It has a theme, beginning to end. It sets us apart from the other shows.”

That’s Jackson’s plan.

“I put a lot of substance in the show,” he says. “I put a theme to it and the emcee leads people through the production. I always have a strong theme and the acts hang together.”

Jackson once worked as a dancer for “Jubilee” creator Donn Arden and as an assistant to Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire’s choreographer. He also worked on many Vegas shows — “Lido,” “Folies,” “Vive les Girls!” and “Casino de Paris” — and choreographed Juliet Prowse’s nightclub act at the Desert Inn. In 1967 he directed the 100th-anniversary show of of “Folies Bergere” in Paris.

‘Jubilee!’ spectacular still manages to surprise and awe after 27 years

There is nothing subtle about “Donn Arden’s Jubilee!”

The spectacle begins with 85 showgirls, dancers and singers in a lavish production number and quickly moves from scene to scene to a finish as exciting as any Busby Berkeley extravaganza.

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Katie Currow, center, during a performance of "Donn Arden's Jubilee!," one of two surviving Las Vegas showgirl extravaganzas, at Bally's on Aug. 17. is flanked by Amelia Bruff, left, and Jenny Lee.

It’s a big show on a big stage with big sets and a big cast in big costumes.

“A lot of people are surprised when they see our show,” says Diane Palm, assistant company manager, who danced in the show for 17 years. “They don’t realize how spectacular it is. This is not just about the girls, it’s the tremendous sets and special effects and so many people. They are really overwhelmed sometimes.”

Another 80 workers are behind the scenes to keep everything frozen in time, as intoxicating as when Arden’s show premiered July 30, 1981.

Today’s show is basically the same seven-act revue — Samson and Delilah, the sinking of the Titanic and a finale that pays tribute to Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and the Ziegfeld Follies.

“We keep the integrity of the show and make it as true (as possible) to what it was when it opened,” Palm says.

“Jubilee!’s” roots run deep. Arden’s dance troupe performed at the Desert Inn in the early ’50s, and he produced “Le Lido de Paris Revue” at the Stardust and “Hallelujah, Hollywood” at the MGM Grand (now Bally’s). When “Hallelujah” closed, it was replaced by Arden’s next spectacle, “Jubilee!” The show stopped for several months after a Nov. 21, 1980, fire that killed 85 people.

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