Once upon a Vegas time, they proved that black was bountiful.
Beautiful? That was obvious.
“We came out, and you knew who we were,” says 71-year-old LaVerne Ligon, former dance captain of the first all-black chorus line of showgirls in a Strip production—the MGM Grand’s Hallelujah Hollywood!—40 years ago. “It was a breakthrough.”
Now it’s a retrospective as the theme of Reflections of the Ebony Guys, Dolls and Techs, a photo exhibit at the West Las Vegas Arts Center. Looking back on the ladies of that historic ensemble who dazzled onstage, as well as the black crew members who labored backstage, it was assembled from the private collections of Ligon and her fellow performers.
A similarly titled documentary was produced in 2012 but has not yet aired on local television, though Ligon has shared it with students and arts groups.
“The community needs to know about our existence. We were part of the development of African-Americans becoming involved in entertainment on the Strip,” says Ligon, who supervised the six-girl line, plus two swing performers.
Defining “extravaganza” for that era, Hallelujah Hollywood! was an opulent, $3 million salute to classic MGM musicals from impresario Donn Arden that ran from 1974 to 1980. Reviews zeroed in on the wow factor, including one from Playboy, which observed, with a kind of snide admiration, that “Hallelujah Hollywood! is everything old Hollywood has come to represent—glitter, gaudiness, glamour—turned out with that special perversity only Vegas can provide.”
After the MGM Grand fire in 1980, Hallelujah Hollywood! was reworked by Arden into Jubilee!, debuting in 1981 at the rebuilt resort, which became Bally’s in 1985. Today, Jubilee! is the longest-running Vegas production show and the last true vestige of the Strip’s once-dominant showgirl aesthetic. Many of the Hallelujah Hollywood! cast segued to the new show, including, briefly, Ligon, who retired in 1982.
Snapshots of glam gals in their feathered, bejeweled and elaborately headdress-clad prime line the gallery walls in tribute to each production and the black dancers who made milestones of both shows. Names such as “Hot Dawn” Lovett, “Lovely Lanya” Love and “Sassy Janis” Conedy—and, of course, Ligon—are among the many women featured, as well as behind-the-scenes tech men. Marquee performers including Sammy Davis Jr., Siegfried Fischbacher, Paul Anka and David Letterman are captured schmoozing with the ladies, who are also seen collaborating with legendary costumer Bob Mackie and choreographer Winston Hemsley.
Sprinkled amid the posed and candid shots are collages of old magazine stories and program covers for Hallelujah Hollywood! and Jubilee!
“Before us, they had [black showgirls] at Moulin Rouge, which wasn’t on the Strip, and they had dancers of color on the Strip, but they were very fair-[skinned] and mixed in,” says Ligon, who aced her audition but balked at Arden’s job offer.
“I didn’t want to go topless. I had worked too hard in a classically trained background, and now they wanted me to take my clothes off. Donn Arden told me I was living in the dark ages, but I said, ‘No thank you.’ But I received a call from Donn three weeks later. He changed his mind and was going to put together an all-black line, and none of us had to go topless, so I came back.”
Soon afterward, she hoofed into Vegas history. “We became a specialty group—Bob Mackie loved us, Donn Arden loved us, and there came a time when others in the cast wanted to be a part of our group,” Ligon says, adding that the cast camaraderie was largely color-blind. “Being able to work in the entertainment field is totally different from any other line of work. This is where you’re more inclined to feel comfortable, and I felt comfortable. We got along well in the show as a unit.”
Yet reminders of the racial divide remained, even though it was the more tolerant 1970s, rather than the segregated Vegas (and America) of the 1950s and ’60s. “Sammy Davis was one of the people [who] recognized some of the difficulties we were having,” Ligon says of the legendary entertainer who was a key figure in the evolution of civil rights for black Vegas performers. “He spoke to the line a few times and was very enlightening to the group. And he delivered cases of Champagne to the whole cast.”
Among those who witnessed the subtle and sometimes unsubtle racial tensions was backstage pioneer B.J. Thomas. Employed as a projectionist, electrician and spotlight operator for Hallelujah Hollywood!, as well as shows at the Flamingo, Dunes, Riviera and Caesars Palace, among others, Thomas began working on the Strip in 1972, after arriving from San Francisco.
“At the time, there was one African-American working in the stagehand business, but they had the consent decree [to end discrimination against black workers], so they were trying to integrate the Strip in all phases of work,” says Thomas, now retired at age 78.
“They were trying to handpick certain people they felt could fit in, so I was sponsored by whites and they were always nice to me. But there was still that old thing of not wanting black stagehands onstage. They didn’t want you around the white girls. When they’d go out to do their numbers, you had to assist them with their costumes. Some white guys didn’t like that. An African-American working as a projectionist was in a booth, out of sight and out of mind.”
Some departments were still solidly white. “They didn’t have African-Americans in the wardrobe department,” Ligon says, “and I remember one of the [costume] tags said, ‘Colored girls.’”
More blatant and egregious were the occasional reactions from casino patrons and some in the community. Routinely, the Hallelujah Hollywood! showgirls, including those on the all-black line, would mingle with guests in the casinos and the coffee shop in full makeup in between performances, spreading goodwill and doling out autographs. “Some people who had been working in the hotels for years, they couldn’t get accustomed to seeing us,” Ligon says. “Once, someone came to the stage door and reported me as a hooker. I was appalled.”
Yet that was probably preferable to being felt up, which happened when Ligon and the ladies emerged into the crowd after a show.
“One guy comes up and grabs my boobs and twists. I spun him around and … BOOM!” she says, demonstrating a swift kick to the jewels, and not the ones shimmering on her costume. “I thought it had to do with being black. I don’t know if they would have done that to a white girl.”
One memory of Ligon’s stands above the rest for both its hostility and generosity, dating back to her first day of rehearsal for Hallelujah Hollywood! Seeking a babysitter for her young son, she thought she’d found one after her apartment management had arranged it for her.
“The lady opened the door and saw I was black and said, ‘I can’t babysit for you; my husband wouldn’t let me do that,’ and slammed the door in my face. I was so upset I cried,” says Ligon, who then shared the story with a fellow dancer.
“She said, ‘Bring him over, we have a sitter over here.’ When I went, there was Joe Williams and Bill Cosby. They were getting ready for a jam session. They babysat for me that first day. I couldn’t believe it. When I picked him up, they had fed him and changed his diaper. And Bill Cosby said, ‘You better not tell a soul!’”
Finding a diaper-duty helper in the ex-I Spy star—who became the first black co-star of a TV drama series a decade earlier—was a stroke of historical karma.
One trailblazer deserves another.
REFLECTIONS OF THE EBONY GUYS, DOLLS & TECHS
9 a.m.-7 p.m. Wed-Fri, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat, through Jan. 25, West Las Vegas Arts Center Community Gallery, 947 W. Lake Mead Blvd., free, 229-4800.