Thursday, February 06, 2003
Tales of Vegas Past: Show me the girl
By Gregory Crosby
The lights dim, the spot hits the stage and a woman--tall, poised, moving with impossible grace beneath a burden of feathers, sequins, rhinestones--sashays in unison with her duplicates to the wonderment, delight and perhaps titillation (since her breasts appear to be the only part of her body not sheathed in makeup or material). Thanks to her elaborate headdress, in addition to her height, she literally towers over the audience as an object of glamorous beauty, transformed into something not quite a dancer (though she may be a talented one) and not quite a chorus girl (though she is one among many). She is the showgirl.
The icon of the Las Vegas showgirl is so ubiquitous in popular culture that we sometimes forget just what an odd being she is. The fact is that the showgirl is an echo, a remnant of another century's entertainment, and not America's either: She was born on the music hall stages of Paris, a French confection that embodied dance, eroticism, spectacle. That the showgirl survives at all in world consciousness is due to Las Vegas, the last place she holds court. And the showgirl is synonymous with Vegas because of the efforts of entertainment directors, producers and casino moguls in the 1950s to bring Parisian-style extravaganzas to the Strip, particularly Donn Arden, a dancer and choreographer who can be credited with making the classic showgirl one of the city's most enduring institutions.
Arden was hired to stage dances and shows at the Desert Inn when it opened in 1950, and he created the Donn Arden Dancers for that purpose. But having worked for Parisian music hall owners in the late '40s, Arden went further and began creating French-style revues--variety acts surrounded by beautiful production values and corps of dancers--for the more intimate nightclub stages of the casinos. These productions were influenced as much by American influences as French ones, and were so successful that Frank Sennes, entertainment director for the Stardust, flew to Paris to export the famed Lido show directly to the Strip. Who should he find there but Arden, who in addition to creating shows for the Desert Inn in the '50s had commuted to Paris to stage the Lido shows as well. It was a "no-brainer": Arden imported the first full French-style show to America, the Lido de Paris, featuring the original costumes and performers from the Paris version (the elegant "French" beauties were, in fact, all English). It was an instant success, running at the hotel for more than 20 years.
More than any other show, the Lido set the standard for the showgirl, and the amazing, over-the-top costumes and statuesque dancers quickly became an archetype. But whereas Arden, a perfectionist and taskmaster, required his showgirls to be classically trained dancers, other showgirls needed nothing more than sheer sex appeal. There had always been line dancers at the various hotels before the Parisian influence arrived, and it was the legendary Jack Entratter, entertainment director at the Sands, who took a page from Arden by giving his Copagirls a veneer of the showgirl without quite the elaboration of their French counterparts. He took his cues for his revues from New York and Broadway, styling himself as the "New Ziegfeld," and his shows had a whiff of Busby Berkley and fabulous flappers rather than European sophistication.
Entratter didn't care if his girls were great dancers or not, their beauty being the primary point. (He even worked out a formula for an "ideal" girl for his revues: 5 feet 4, 116 pounds., 32-24-34, oval face, brunette.) They were literally eye candy, and their numbers were low-key and pleasing, like their famous fan dance. Both Arden's and Entratter's showgirls were about stunning visuals, the former tending toward more nudity (in line with their French origins) while the latter tending toward a souped-up version of the sweet chorus girl.
Where Arden and Entratter pioneered, other hotel-casinos naturally followed, and big production shows became the norm on the Strip for decades, many with French names if not actually French in origin (the Folies Bergere, brought to the Tropicana from Paris in 1959, being an exception). But over time the Parisian music hall and the Broadway chorus line, while powerful inspirations, gave way to more "modern" dance productions that were heavy on sex (such as Enter the Night, which replaced the Lido at the Stardust) and special effects, rather than glamour and variety. Even at the time that the showgirl came to Vegas in the '50s the Parisian music hall was dying. Today only the Folies Bergere survives, along with Donn Arden's last creation, Jubilee! (at Bally's), as shows where the classic Vegas showgirl can still be seen in what might be termed her natural habitat. The day may come to pass when these too will fade away, and the showgirl in her glittering costume will be pure icon, a thing of beauty, a thing of the past.