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They bid adieu to a sexy old showgirl

'Les Folies Bergere' is folding, another Vegas casualty. Its highs and lows are recalled by 3 who helped it glitter.

March 19, 2009|Ashley Powers

LAS VEGAS — It outlasted Elvis, the Rat Pack, the mob, the Atomic Age and the Stardust, Dunes and Sands casinos. It helped cement the showgirl as Sin City ambassador -- the mayor often appears with one on each arm -- and as pop culture shorthand for glittery, sexy Las Vegas.

But months shy of its 50th year, "Les Folies Bergere" will soon close, a victim of slumping revenue and changing tastes.

When it opened on Christmas Eve 1959, the Tropicana's topless revue embodied all that was naughty and daring in Vegas. But, in time, Vegas became much racier than the "Folies." Cirque du Soleil performers disrobe in "Zumanity." In the show "Bite," vampires bare fangs and breasts. Even some female tourists sunbathe topless at hotel pools.

In a way, the history of "Folies" mirrors that of Vegas: a long stretch of success, then hard times. Its story is told through an aging chorine who remembers opening night, through a director who struggled to keep the cash-strapped production afloat, and through a showgirl who will strut in its final plumed and sequined performance, on March 28.

Their time in "Folies" ties them to a bygone Vegas that brought glamour to the masses. These days, the show's demise mostly merits a shrug in this recession-battered town -- there are too many businesses closing, too many foreclosures and too much grief.

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The 1950s dawned with Clark County as an outpost with fewer than 50,000 souls and a handful of Western-themed gambling halls, though the backwater's ambition was as immense as the Mojave Desert.

Its first topless production, "Minsky's Follies," opened in 1957 at the Dunes and was advertised in Los Angeles as "riotous" and "eye-popping." The true forerunner to modern showgirl productions, "Lido de Paris," arrived a year later at the Stardust.

Meanwhile, in El Paso, a beauty queen named Virginia James spotted a newspaper ad: The Sands was hiring dancers for its Copa Room. "The owner wanted to see a whole line of Texas girls because Texas is known for beautiful girls with beautiful teeth," she recalls.

James aced the audition and moved to Vegas, where she still lives. She is 77 and maintains a wavy white-blond coiffure, a dancer's posture and a trim figure clad in black leggings and calf-high boots.

"I met everybody famous in the world," she says. Nat King Cole. Dean Martin. Lena Horne. She attended parties, she says, on Frank Sinatra's arm. "I met Elvis later. I went out with him. I didn't sleep with him, but he kissed me and my heart stopped."

James tried Hollywood but found it distasteful and returned to Vegas. The Tropicana had opened in 1957, and James danced in its short-lived Jayne Mansfield show.

"Then Mansfield was out, the marquee was blank and all the dancers got pink slips -- except me," she says. Entertainment director Lou Walters wanted her in "Folies," his $250,000 show imported from Paris.

"He said, 'What do you think about nude?' And I said, 'I don't.' "

He put her in charge of dancers who didn't disrobe in the show. "Three-quarters of them were from Paris and didn't speak a word of English. But I said I was from Texas and they knew Texas, so they called me Tex," James recalls.

Opening night, she remembers, somehow felt bigger than other premieres: "It wasn't the first topless show, but it was the first 'Folies Bergere.' "

She saved the printed program -- hers is the fourth name listed in the Ballet de Paris -- and cherished her two years with the show: The jet set audience shimmering in diamonds and mink. Whirlwind costume changes. The topless beauties, who were called mannequins because, mainly, they stood motionless and smiled.

Though interspersed over the years with jugglers, magicians and contortionists, the showgirls were always the headliners. Eventually, the onetime mannequins also were included in the dance routines. Sammy Davis Jr., Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor came to admire them, and middle-class Americans came to gawk at the Hollywood stars. They all sipped martinis and scotch.

Since the '90s, when Vegas flirted with becoming family friendly, the showgirls' breasts have been covered at some performances so children can attend. The audience fills maybe half the 850 seats and wears fanny packs and Harley Davidson T-shirts. Many people bring their own yard-long margarita cups.

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In the 1960s, showgirls became civic icons. They presided over golf course openings and smiled on magazine covers. For a two-drink minimum, they could be ogled in casinos all over town.

"This was a place where you could find things that were nowhere else," says Su Kim Chung, an archivist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "And where else could you find a 6-foot-tall woman with feathers sprouting off her back and fishnet stockings and a string bikini?"

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