By RICH GRANT
There’s no greater icon for Las Vegas than a statuesque showgirl, sparkling with jewels, her head covered with ostrich plumes, her outstretched arms shimmering with diamond cuffs as she stands motionless and semi-nude, a celebration of the beauty of the female form.
But times change.
Where once every casino on the Strip had an elaborate showgirl production, today it is all Cirque du Soleil, Broadway musicals, Celine and David Copperfield. When the Folies Bergere closed in 2008 after a run of 49.5 years, that left Glitter Gulch with just one last showgirl production.
Ah, but what a production it was. “Jubilee!” — which closed on Feb. 11, 2016 — was pure Vegas – the longest running show in town. For 35 years, this $50-million, over-the-top spectacle of 85 dancers wearing 1,000 different costumes exploded on a stage half the size of an American football field. Literally exploded. Each show used five pounds of explosives and 1,000 pounds of dry ice.
But no special effect could top the showgirls – the 60 beauties who wore 10,000 pounds of rhinestones, 8,000 miles of sequins, 4,000 pounds of feathers … and not much else.
One of the great ways to enjoy the show was on a backstage tour, held three days a week. Led by one of the showgirls, the tour took you into their dressing rooms and behind the show’s staggering 75 different curtains and backdrops to see what it took to put on this swirling sea of color.
Our tour guide, Laura, was a former ballet dancer who had been with “Jubilee!” for five years. She was perky, tall and model-thin and joined the tour wearing a g-string, fishnet stockings and a short little sparkling black jacket and bowler hat. While she certainly was the most glamorous thing in our group of 20 older, sweating and overweight tourists, we soon learned there was really very little glamor in being a showgirl.
“Jubilee!” was performed twice a night, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. And there was only one cast, with no understudies. That meant each dancer had to perform every show. When dancers were injured, sick or on vacation, the other cast members would fill in. Laura was a “swing” dancer, so for certain production numbers, she had to know the moves and routines of all the other hoofers so she could fill in for anyone missing. That required her to memorize 45 different dance routines and costume changes and be able to perform any one of them at the drop of a hat.
After standing on the main stage to see the immense size of it, the tour group descended two stories below to the cramped dressing rooms. Here, we learned that the spectacle you saw on stage each night was dwarfed by the excitement that wet on behind the curtain. Laura had 11 costume changes in the show. Each change required that she go up and down two flights of stairs in three-inch heels, often wearing a 20 pound costume with a headdress that could stick out three feet on each side, all the while avoiding all the other 85 dancers (and the 75 stage hands pulling curtains and pushing sets). She did 1,500 stairs a night. “There’s no need for the dancers to work out or exercise,” she told us. “We get all the exercise we need just being in the show.”
It’s hard to imagine the chaos that went on in those cramped quarters. Some of the headdresses were so huge that they were held up by pulleys 20 feet in the air and lowered on to the girl’s head just before going on stage. The headdresses alone could weigh 25 pounds and featured hundreds of feathers from ostrich, pheasant and even vultures – all individually attached to a football-like helmet designed to fit snugly on a showgirl’s head. There were no chinstraps. It took balance and incredible strength to hold the headdress up, move gracefully across stage, avoid hitting the other girls, and get back to the dressing room, where you had three minutes to change and do it all over again.
Designed by Bob Mackie and Pete Menafee, the costumes were all different, and many of them were 30 years old. They were valued at up to $50,000 apiece.
Keeping the costumes in shape required three costume shops, where a team of specialists were constantly sewing, wiring and cleaning. As you walked through the shops filled with feathers and sequins, the most memorable thing was that the mirrors were bedecked with personal photos, just like any office desk in the world. “This is where we spend most of our lives, and we’re like a family,” Laura said. Dancers had to be 18, but there was no older age limit and the oldest male dancer was 51 and a grandfather. “As long as you look good and feel good wearing a g-string, you’re in,” Laura said.
To stand out on such a huge stage required real presence. Women dancers had to be at least 5 feet 8 inches tall for the “short” end of the line, and 5 feet 10 inches for the “tall” end. The 25 male dancers had to be 6 feet tall.
When Las Vegas introduced showgirls in 1959, the law was that for them to be nude, they could not move. That led to the iconic image of showgirls just standing still. Later, that rule loosened up and all of the showgirls were dancers and athletes. Forty of them in “Jubilee!” were topless; the other were covered dancers, of which Laura was one, were called “Bluebells,” after a Miss Blue Bell, one of the early dressers.
But it was always the nude dancers that stole the show, and consequently they made more money, were the featured dancers and had the best costumes. “When I saw the costumes, I knew I had to try them,” Laura said, so she would “swing” or fill-in for the nude dancers when required. She held up a bra that was little more than a ribbon outline of sparking diamonds, the key pieces missing. “It doesn’t look like much, but I’d feel naked without it!” she laughed.
In addition to the dressing rooms, the backstage tour would visit some of the elaborate sets that were stored below stage and whisked up by 11 elevators. The show’s set pieces included the sinking of the Titanic, a Samson and Delilah number in which a gigantic temple would crash to the ground and an homage to Hollywood. Two floors underground, you could see the 30-foot model of the Titanic, or the ship’s enormous boiler rooms, or the huge metal cages, where Laura, as a slave girl, would dance in the Samson number. Some 100,000 pounds of sets were moved up and down to the stage in seconds – and all by hand. Whereas modern shows like “The Phantom of the Opera” are computer and machine controlled, the old-school “Jubilee!” production was done by hand, with 75 stage hands pulling ropes, shoving props and placing explosives.
Each girl had to do her own makeup – and to be visible on a huge stage, the makeup was heavy. Since their own hair was not part of the show, the girls would wrap their heads in a pantyhose cap so they could easily slip into and out of headdresses and wigs. The makeup and pantyhose cap might not have been the most glamorous look close-up behind the stage, but once they got into their costumes, danced past the curtain and shimmered into the spotlight – you were seeing some of the hardest working, most athletic, talented and beautiful dancers in the business.