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Vegas Skin Show Ends Just Short of its 50th Anniversary

[www.latimes.com]- 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.

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.

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?”

Into that world stepped Jerry Jackson, who in 1966 helped Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire’s choreographer, stage a new edition of “Folies.” When he overhauled the show in 1975, Jackson bestowed it with the first of several themes — the French music hall — and an ornate setting: tap dancers shuffling on red pianos, showgirls in $3,000 beaded gowns and a 1930s Rolls Royce purring onto the stage.

Jackson, 73, lives near West Hollywood. His tone is wistful — he played nearly every behind-the-scenes role in “Folies,” from choreographer to director. In one scene, showgirls lay down on a rotating disc, their fluttering pink fans reflected for the audience in a giant mirror. He had pinned down the movements on his Tropicana bed, staring at the mirror on the ceiling.

In an arrangement that differs from most Strip productions, the Tropicana owns “Folies” and pays cast salaries and other costs. In the ’90s, Jackson says, the casino stopped showering the show with money.

The Tropicana has endured ownership troubles from the get-go. Its first executives had ties to mob boss Frank Costello, according to John L. Smith’s book “Sharks in the Desert,” and subsequent mob associates ensured the casino “underperformed like a poodle in a vaudeville dog act who forgot why he was on stage.” But the property’s later corporate owners couldn’t boost profits either.

Jackson struggled with the diminished budget. The multimillion-dollar Cirque shows, with their casts of acrobats, redefined exotic in Vegas. “Jubilee!,” the Strip’s only other showgirl spectacular, sinks the Titanic every night.

By contrast, the “Folies” gold staircase has been in use since 1975. When Jackson revised it again in 1997, he created a striptease number using only black lights and $500 costumes. Critics noticed.

“Folies,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal said recently, “has so long been denied funding that it tumbled from the top tier of Las Vegas attractions years ago and now hovers in an odd region.”

Casino operator Tropicana Entertainment LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May. In December, Jackson went to a meeting at the Tropicana and found it a poorly aged debutante.

Its gold-dusted ceiling resembles that of a church, only the angels are bare-breasted. The cocktail waitresses wear muted uniforms that resemble linens. Though senior citizens feed dollar slots, the high-limit machines mostly are empty.

Managers told Jackson the casino had no cash to revamp “Folies” for its golden anniversary. The following month, its closing was announced. He will stay with the show to the end, but shelved dreams of a $20-million refurbishing. “I was going to do an infinity staircase,” he says, “that went clear up to the stars.”

Svetlana Failla stares into a makeup mirror. For a decade, she has lined her eyes like Cleopatra and glued on false lashes that graze her cheek when she winks. Ten times a week, she dons a rhinestone-studded bra and thong for the opening number’s signature “butt shot,” in which a spotlight briefly highlights her backside.

Tonight, she struggles to hold back tears. “I want two more years of sparkle and glitter,” she says.

Failla started dancing at age 5, though as a young ballroom dancer in Moscow, she never imagined life as a showgirl. Her dad, who died when she was a girl, was a watchmaker; her mother toiled in the garment industry. She never saw her dance in Vegas.

“She would have never approved of me doing topless,” Failla says. “And I’d probably be on stage dancing and she’d come running after me with a towel.”

Failla laughs, and it sounds like wind chimes.

She had traveled the world for two years as a backup dancer for a Russian pop star when, in 1991, she visited her then-boyfriend, who was in a circus act at the Stardust. She spoke German, Italian and Russian but no English. She had him ask if she could rehearse with the Stardust dancers to stay in shape.

Soon, the green-eyed, 5-foot-10 Barbie look-alike was offered a role. She broke her touring contract. In 1999, she joined the “Folies.”

“When I go on stage, I disappear,” Failla says, her hands flying and her words lightly accented. “I always pick someone in the audience and perform for them.”

Though performing still inspires her, she’s already preparing for her next act. She’s been attending fashion design school and dreams of selling couture gowns. But still she hopes someone will demand a “Folies” encore.

A voice echoes from another room: “Check. Check.” Showtime nears. Dancers file in wearing T-shirts and cotton pants and passing rows of sparkling capes. “Thirty minutes,” the voice says.

Failla paints her face and dons a red feather headdress. When the show starts, she strides onto the stage, flashing a coquettish smile. She evokes an old kind of glamour, the kind that was naughty and cheeky when Las Vegas was full of optimism and, in a way, a bit more innocent.

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