Las Vegas is embodied by many icons: the tumbling dice, the glowing neon, the chilled cocktail glass. But the showgirl stands head and heels above the rest. She appears on TV commercials, she greets celebrities, she mingles with conventioneers, she’s even a pair of 35-foot-tall twins framing the sides of the accursed Slotzilla.
But one thing she will not be doing anymore is performing in splashy production numbers on a Strip stage. On February 11, Jubilee!, the only traditional production show left in Las Vegas, ends its 34-year run and, with it, so goes the last venue for leggy lovelies in feathers and spangles to strut across the proscenium before an adoring audience.
Now the sideshow is the main attraction and the showgirl … well, the performer who became a symbol seems to be turning into a symbol who rarely gets to perform.
Arguably, one could say that the showgirl helped make Las Vegas, not the other way around. Back in the 1950s, showgirls brought the sexy sophistication of Paris, the cosmopolitan glamour of New York City and the big-budget glitz of Hollywood to a desert boomtown with flashy aspirations. Their alluring presence, dancing alongside stars such as Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye, helped transform concert gigs into exciting shows that drew a chic, upscale crowd. Showgirls also appealed to tourists near and far, as every property took photographs of their resident glamour queens for postcards, brochures and newspapers. Folks might not come to Vegas just for the showgirls, but an especially appealing bevy of beauties might make one choose the Desert Inn over the Riviera—or vice-versa.
In the ’60s, the showgirl became the star, as showrooms moved away from the individual headliner and more toward large-scale spectacles—the most (and most beautiful) women, the most (and most expensive) costumes. Casinos competed to import elegant and exotic productions from that other City of Lights, beginning with the Stardust acquiring the Lido de Paris, followed by the Tropicana’s Folies Bergère and the Dunes’ Casino de Paris. As the ’70s kicked in, shows grew more lavish and casts expanded to include “male singers,” “tall dancers,” “short nudes” and a host of other roles. Hello, Hollywood, Hello! at MGM Grand Reno featured 133 performers on “the world’s largest stage.” When Jubilee! opened, so many rhinestones and Swarovski crystals encrusted the costumes that ostensibly there was a worldwide shortage of the sparklers.
But during the ’80s, flashy, decadent Sin City began giving way to the family-friendly, corporate hierarchy version of Las Vegas—and the sexuality and extravagance that characterized the showgirl and her onstage milieu was anathema to both. Properties began to move away from financing the shows and “four-walling,” in which the producer rents the venue and is responsible for all expenses, became prevalent. That can get pretty expensive when you’re talking about two dozen handmade gowns or a hydraulic stage. Financially and logistically, it’s simply easier to bring in a headliner for a few residencies each year than it is to maintain a legion of dancers, musicians and a crew for 12 months.
Not only the bottom line bent trends away from big casts and big budgets and toward the solo star. Our culture now focuses more on the individual, the personality. In the era of the close-up selfie, people seem less beguiled by enormous stages and herds of performers. It’s too bad: A full-on, over-the-top production number is like a fireworks display, all one can do is sit back and be dazzled. Two dozen showgirls in full plumage and sparkle, strutting down a grand mirrored staircase—it’s the sort of sensory overload that can’t be captured by Instagram or conveyed in a tweet.
The interest in the individual may also be reflected in the acrobat’s precedence over the showgirl: For the most part, Cirque du Soleil productions are dominated by vignettes of a few artists performing specific stunts. Ironically, that’s what was used to occupy the audience during set and costume changes—while the contortionist or clown showed off in front of the curtain, everyone behind it had eight minutes to get into their Nefertiti wig or lower the temple doors for the Samson and Delilah number.
Now the sideshow is the main attraction and the showgirl … well, the performer who became a symbol seems to be turning into a symbol who rarely gets to perform. She’s still needed, but she’s no longer swathed in thousands of dollars’ worth of imported crystals and rare feathers—she’s wearing spandex and sequins; she’s no longer gliding across a polished stage under a 20-foot chandelier—she’s posing for photos, handing out product samples. After all, no one sees a picture of a French-Canadian gymnast or ’90s pop chart-topper and immediately thinks Vegas! That will always be the role of the gorgeous, glamorous, glittering showgirl.
But it can’t be the only one. And, beyond Sin City, it isn’t. In Berlin, the hot show is The Wyld, which has giant Egyptian-themed production numbers alongside BMX stunts, masked acrobats and couture-clad showgirls. The Tropicana may have closed the Folies seven years ago, but Havana’s Tropicana Club still mounts spectaculars with plenty of showgirls in full plumage. In France, the original Parisian shows are still packing them in.
Like so many important Las Vegans, the showgirl wasn’t born here: She came from Paris’ Moulin Rouge, New York’s Copacabana and Hollywood’s soundstages. And, if Vegas needs to stretch a little further to bring her back home, a lady—and a legend—is worth it.