By John Katsilometes | June 30, 2014 | Culture
Jubilee reopens: The last show of its kind has been reimagined, but the showgirl will always be a Vegas icon.
In Jubilee, the performers sport headdresses that can weigh more than 25 pounds.
Through all the changes that Las Vegas entertainment has seen over the decades—from the rise of star headliners to the influx of lavish acrobatic spectacles—the showgirl has endured. Gracefully. Immortally. Nothing has toppled the tall, elegant figure from her pedestal. Her feathers unruffled, her headpiece sparkling, she has survived it all. Even the worst disaster in Strip history failed to fell what is today the last showgirl bastion in Vegas.
On November 21, 1980, the highly anticipated production Jubilee was in its final run-throughs at the MGM Grand, which today is Bally’s. It was two weeks from its premiere performance in the hotel’s showroom, then known as the Ziegfeld Theatre. Jubilee was stepping in as Hallelujah Hollywood, the hotel’s resident showgirl production, sashayed away after six years.
Las Vegas historians know that date all too well as the day a tragic fire tore through the MGM Grand, killing 85 people. The Ziegfeld Theatre was one of the few areas in the hotel equipped with overhead sprinklers, which were activated when the fire reached the venue.
The 30-foot pit that is the theater’s basement was a pond holding three feet of water. Jubilee’s new costumes, never worn in a full-scale show, were soaked. The feathered, Swarovski crystal– encrusted pieces were doused and black with soot. It took officials three days to enter and take inventory of the costumes and sets. The production’s legendary company manager, Ffolliott “Fluff” LeCoque, assessed the damage in a pair of waders. The show was delayed for months, not opening until July of the following year.
But it did open, impressively. It survived. Better than that, actually. According to Diane Palm, Jubilee’s current company manager and a showgirl in the original cast, “It was incredible. Opening night stretched all the way through the casino with people trying to get into the show.”
Without a doubt, the Las Vegas showgirl has transfixed audiences around the world as one of the enduring icons of this city.
“They are Las Vegas,” says former Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman, who was flanked by a pair of showgirl models for all of his public appearances while in office from 1999 to 2011—and still is, for that matter. “Showgirls are the original way we distinguished ourselves from other cities, with their beauty and grace and elegance. They were with me, day after day, wherever I went around town, because they were the brand of Las Vegas.”
Goodman remembers attending the World Tourism Conference in London while he was mayor. Also there, at the behest of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, were the ever-present showgirls.
“People were lining up along the street to take pictures of us,” Goodman says. “I can tell you, it was not because they were interested in me. It was the showgirls. That’s how powerful and recognizable that image is.”
Opening night of the Casino de Paris show at the Dunes in 1963.
The showgirl as we understand her today began sashaying on Las Vegas stages in the late 1940s, in specialty shows in the Roundup Room at El Rancho Vegas. The Sands Copa Girls debuted in 1952, soon followed by Minsky’s Follies (the first show in Nevada to feature topless dancers) at the Dunes.
But the extravagance began taking hold in the late ’50s. Lido de Paris opened with the Stardust in 1958, followed by Folies Bergère at the Tropicana—which was famously brought to Las Vegas by Lou Walters, father of Barbara Walters, who wound up visiting the show the week it closed in March 2009.
Palm, who danced in Lido, Casino de Paris at the Dunes, and Hallelujah Hollywood before joining Jubilee, pinpoints Lido as the true birth of the showgirl in Las Vegas. “I think that is when the showgirl appears, in 1958,” she says. “It was imported directly from Paris. It was a line of showgirls—basically tall, beautiful women who were in feathers.”
Jubilee now stands alone as the last classic showgirl production in Las Vegas. It hasn’t been an easy run, surviving the twists and turns of a Strip that has become increasingly fickle over the past decades. Jubilee became the last gal standing when Folies Bergère, the only other production to rival it in size and scope, closed at the Tropicana after 50 years and more than 29,000 performances.
The end of Folies was bittersweet. The closing was, predictably, steeped in nostalgia, as its original choreographer, Jerry Jackson, returned to say a final goodbye. But the show was in tatters, literally. Its costumes were frayed, the curtain in need of a good vacuuming. Cast members decried the lack of quality control in the show’s final few months.
But no such fate has befallen Jubilee, which remains as extravagantly appointed and as precisely performed as ever. The cast is still robust, with 85 dancers (plus 175 production team members), and auditions held every six months to keep the show fresh and ward off complacency. Stringent physical requirements remain: Every dancer in Jubilee must be a minimum of 5 feet, 8 inches tall when measured in bare feet.
Gene Kelly with the Folies Bergère girls on the 1970 TV special Gene Kelly’s Wonderful World of Girls.
If you don’t have extensive formal dance training, a job with Jubilee is not for you. During the audition process, dancers must quickly learn complex routines, replete with ballet turns. Those who can’t are shown the door. Performers with ballet, jazz, and contemporary-dance backgrounds are those who tend to survive the audition, and then it’s a month of training before they can join the show. That training regimen includes learning how to walk while wearing a 20-pound, rhinestone-encrusted headpiece. It’s as physically demanding a role as there is for dancers anywhere in the world. Aching joints are a constant challenge. For all the weight a dancer must carry across the stage, being a showgirl can be, in a very real way, a pain in the neck.
“I can say that, because of all the showgirlism I’ve done, my neck is a mess,” says Tara Palsha, who moved to Vegas in 2003 and has danced in a half-dozen Strip productions since. “But I am so thankful for the experience, because whatever I do in any show, I can handle, because I got the exact training for that in Jubilee.”
To a large degree, the payoff in enduring all of the challenges of being a showgirl is… you get to be a showgirl. “When people see the curtain go up and all these beautiful women draped in jewels, their eyes light up,” says Kat Schwing, a member of the Jubilee cast for the past three years, who spent two years dancing at Le Lido in Paris before moving to Las Vegas. “It’s like you’re in a dream. I’m so proud to walk out on that stage, because there is nothing else like it.”
A veteran stage performer on the Strip, Cheaza Figueroa joined the cast in April and was instantly aware that being a showgirl in Jubilee is not like being part of a typical Vegas show.
"I have not done anything so classically Las Vegas,” says Figueroa, who was a member of the Peepshow cast during that show’s entire four-year run, eventually assuming the lead role of Peep Diva. Originally, Peepshow was intended to be a topless version of Jubilee featuring a series of production numbers. But that’s where the similarities ended.
“For me, the difference in Peep and Jubilee is those costumes,” says Figueroa, one of the principal singers in the new version of Jubilee. “The costumes in Peep are lavish, but nothing like this. There are 25-pound headdresses with these huge stones, $9,000 dresses. Are you kidding me? No show has this anymore. None.”
The production is unique in so many ways—not just because its Swarovski crystals are so rare that when one falls from a costume, dancers scramble to retrieve it because it might well be irreplaceable. Jubilee is one of the last full-scale productions in Las Vegas to be owned fully by the hotel where it’s staged. You could argue—as some have, and not just in jest—that Jubilee is so important to the city’s culture that it should be publicly subsidized and protected as a historic landmark.
A dance number from the new Jubilee.
But its owners are Caesars Entertainment and Bally’s, and the evolution of Jubilee falls to members of the creative team who have been working on it for years. It has not been easy to remake Jubilee as a more contemporary show. Some longtime fans wanted it to remain as is, a classic production highlighting the lavish gowns designed by Bob Mackie and Pete Menefee. But some of the acts and choreography had become dated, stale, and unintentionally campy.
Beyoncé’s choreographer, Frank Gatson Jr., was brought in to reimagine the show, using a character called Miss Jubilee and a narrator to carry the story line. More R&B-infused dance numbers have been added; side acts were cut completely. Such popular numbers as “Samson and Delilah” and “Titanic” remain, amid new acts featuring the music of Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake. Projection is used more prominently, and a 45-foot pole is summoned to introduce Miss Jubilee to the audience.
The response to this updated version of the last showgirl production in Vegas has not been universally positive, to put it charitably, and Gatson left the show just weeks after it was relaunched. Members of the Jubilee creative team, including Palm, emphasize that they’re still working on the show and will never become complacent. And the elements that set Jubilee apart are still in place.
“Jubilee will continue to evolve. We will keep it from being a museum piece,” Palm says. “We will not box it up and put it away. It is still an entertaining show. But if you try to chase the market, it won’t work. If you put on a good show, people will want to see it.”
Jubilee is the last of its kind simply because it is very expensive to maintain and because the large number of high-caliber shows in Las Vegas has depleted the audience for a genuine showgirl production. “I don’t think you’ll see a show that uses showgirls the way Jubilee does ever again,” declares LeCoque, who turns 91 in August. “The attraction of Cirque du Soleil has taken over. It used to be so many shows here were filled with wonderful dancers and showgirls. Now almost all of the showgirls are in Jubilee.
“Not everyone who is in a show is a showgirl,” she adds. “Over the decades, they’ve changed from tall and glamorous mannequins to classically trained dancers.”
Will there be another Lido, Folies, or Jubilee developed in Las Vegas? The expert in the field says it’s not likely. “My sense is they will never produce another show like it,” says LeCoque. “You might have shows with four or six, but not the same show as we used to have, with dozens and dozens of showgirls.”
Her sage advice: Enjoy what’s left. The showgirl is rare, but she is here. Come hell or high water, the showgirl will continue to grace the stage in Las Vegas.
Photography by Jeff Gale