The El Rancho Dice Girls in 1949. |Photo courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

Stories From the Chorus Line

Step inside the dressing room and we’ll tell you a tale...

Joy Blaine Garner

El Rancho, Riviera, Tropicana, Sands (1950s-1960s)

Sands Copa Girl Joy Blaine in 1958. | Photo courtesy of UNLV Special Collections

Sands Copa Girl
Joy Blaine in 1958. | Photo courtesy of UNLV Special Collections

When [director] George Sidney did Viva Las Vegas, we were all sitting around the Sands one night and I told him my story. He had Ann-Margret say what I said in the movie Viva Las Vegas. I was born in Boulder City, I went to school at Fifth Street School, I graduated in Reno and I was the third Miss Nevada.

My first show was the El Rancho, and I got fired after 10 days. That was the Mafia days, when those guys were around. And one of those guys liked me and he gave me a note to give Sammy Lewis at the Riviera, and I worked there for a couple of months. Then I auditioned at the Tropicana. That was before Lou Walters came, then it became the Les Folies Bergère, and I stayed on. Then I got a job at the Sands, which was the place to work with the Copa Girls, and then during the Rat Pack days.

I made as much money as most men made back in those days: I was supporting my mother, my brother, myself and my son. I bought a little house with $800 down and $90 a month. So to me, it was a really good job. You have to remember what I was doing—back at the end of the ’50s and the ’60s, that had just started to happen for women. I made the living, I went out and worked, and it afforded me independence.

All the famous people used to come in there and sit right in front of us. It was absolutely distracting. I was never a Marilyn Monroe fan, but one night she was sitting ringside and I looked down, and she was absolutely gorgeous. And you know, I didn’t get that from pictures of her. Her skin was translucent, and she looked up at each girl and smiled at each of us individually. It was just so endearing.

Just knowing the Rat Pack, we knew all those guys. Sammy Davis used to always throw parties, and he was a great guy. Of course, Dean Martin was super—later, he and his wife became good friends with my husband and I. I married Don Cherry. He was a singer and a professional golfer, and Dean Martin was our best man. We ended up living here because Don could sing at night and play golf all day. He knew everybody. We had a house over by the old Paradise Palms, which was the place back then. Johnny Carson had a house over there. We used to have people dropping by all the time. The comedians used to like to talk at our house—Jan Murray, Rowan and Martin from Laugh-In. It was exciting … but that was just the way the town was. It was a small town back then. It sure has changed!

Judy Johnson Jones

Sands (1950s-1960s)

Copa Girl Judy Johnson. | Photo courtesy of UNLV Special Collections

Copa Girl Judy Johnson. | Photo courtesy of UNLV Special Collections

I came to Las Vegas in August 1958. My mother saw a contest advertised in the Houston Chronicle: If you won, you got a six-week contract at the Sands Hotel and a round-trip ticket to Las Vegas. I was just out of high school and had no plans. We went down to the Shamrock Hotel that afternoon. … We were in Vegas a week later. Neither my mother nor I had ever gone there. My mom just said, “Remember, you act like a lady, and they will treat you like a lady.”

It was like we were in the Land of Oz or something. [A friend and I] got a little garage apartment on San Francisco Street. It was right across the street from the Sahara, so we walked from the Sands to the Sahara twice a day for rehearsals. It was just fun! See any of the shows, walk up and down the Strip and see all the things in the lounge. We were just in fairyland. I was in all the shows with Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra. … You had to come in between shows and sit or walk around, or be seen in the casino or in the garden room. You didn’t have to mix with anybody; you were just like a walking advertisement.

We were together every night. We put on our makeup together. There was bitching, teasing, silliness, sadness, feeling hurt, you know? All the emotions and struggles. These were women—I would say 80 percent of them—[who] were the main breadwinners of their family. Some had children and were single mothers. They were sweet to me.

And they were beautiful, being in makeup and all of that. Because every girl there, if you look at the pictures, they were so—to me—absolutely stunning. And then you toss off the makeup, and you have freckles and you’re ordinary, just a plain Jane. So we had that experience of becoming somebody else, and then in 10 minutes you were just your ordinary self again.

Corinne Entratter Sidney

Sands (1960s)

I was going to UCLA—I had turned down Stanford so I could go to Cal for journalism. I was in a red cashmere sweater set, and a guy came up to me and said, “How would you like to be in the Miss USA contest?” I said, “How much is it paying? How long will it take?” He said, “This is not a business!” I said, “Well, if I do it, it’s going to be a business.” I was runner-up for Miss USA. … I was just very lucky and pretty. If I didn’t have three-and-a-half inches of cleavage, I would have never been chosen.

I didn’t want to be a showgirl, but [Sands general manager] Jack Entratter, whom I was madly in love with … he wanted to keep me and I said, “You can’t keep me. If you keep me you’ll never marry me so uh-uh! I’ll go to work, and I’ll be very close—very close.” And he said, “If you go to work in this town, you’re gonna have to work for me!” So, I worked about three months as a showgirl. He couldn’t stand it any longer. There is no man that can’t be had!

I used to say to myself when I’d walk out, “Eat your hearts out.” That was my attitude. Oh, God, it was fun. To me, it was never being a movie star. To me, it was living an honest life and not pretending. Living in a Betty Crocker kind of world, and being the person that said, “Hey, the king isn’t wearing any clothes.” I was born rebellious.

We had such fun, and it was a wild time. It was the ’60s, and everybody was at their peak: The Rat Pack, the hotel, people were parked in the middle of the street. … One night we were in L.A. and Frank had to do a charity show, then we all rushed in the limousines back to Frank’s house on Sunset Boulevard. One guy, I think it was Dean or somebody, said, “I could go for a pizza.” Another one was like, “Uh it’s so late. I am going to go to sleep.” And I said, “Poor you guys! Here you are known to the world as the great fun Rat Pack, and I’m sitting here and I’m bored to shit!” And Frank looked at me and said, “OK, smarty pants, where do you want to go?” I said, “I want to go to a burlesque. I want to see Candy Barr strip. I have never seen a strip.” And Frank said, “OK!” He goes [to his valet], “George [Jacobs], get the limos out!” And we go—just like a caravan, six cars, and we walked into the place and it’s empty. Nobody was in there and they took one look at Frank and they went, “Oh, my God!” Pretty soon, the place started filling up. … Oh, Candy Barr was adorable—they threw pink feathers, and we came home with pink feathers in our hair, all over the cars! Frank said, “Were you bored, sweetheart?”

The girls didn’t trust me because I was the boss’ girl. They’d say, “Well, we can’t talk in front of you Corinne.” I’d go, “What do you think, I go out with Jack after the show, and I sit and talk about what goes on in this dressing room? There are much more interesting things going on in the world then what goes on in here. In fact, I’d be ashamed to repeat it.” And that kind of shut them up.

MGM’s Hallelujah, Hollywood in 1974. | Photo courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

MGM’s Hallelujah, Hollywood in 1974. | Photo courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

Karen Burns

MGM Grand Reno (1980s)

I was raised by a strict German mother and a traveling vacuum-cleaner salesman dad. Zero exposure to art, culture, music. But I started snow skiing at the age of 3. I was on ski patrol and became a professional ski instructor, so that was my passion in life. I was going to college when freestyle skiing was coming around—moguls, aerials—and they had a form called ballet skiing. I thought, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. I’m going to take a year off and compete on the freestyle skiing circuit.” So at 20 years old, I walked into my first ballet class with Maggie Banks—she assisted Jerome Robbins on West Side Story, choreographed for Frank Sinatra—she was a big, big deal. She said, “Just take one class, we’ll see how it goes.” I did, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, what is this? It’s fabulous!” I went back to school and majored in physical education with an emphasis in dance.

Kirk Kerkorian opened up MGM in Vegas and hired Donn Arden to create Hallelujah, Hollywood there. Then he came to Reno and opened Hello, Hollywood, Hello!, which was billed as the biggest show in the world on the biggest stage in the world in the Biggest Little City in the World. I was the most clueless chorus girl that ever appeared in the show because I’d only been dancing for three years. But right time, right place. The first show I did was a female-impersonator show, where I was the real girl in the show. When I worked in Hello, Hollywood, Hello!, I never told people that story; they’d say, “Oh, I just danced in Paris, I did a video with Michael Jackson and I’m doing the Academy Awards …” on and on and on. “What have you done?” I couldn’t say, “Oh, I was in a drag show in Wildwood, New Jersey.”

The whole thing was that glamour, sophistication and beauty. When Hello, Hollywood, Hello! opened, it was in the Ziegfeld Theater on the Ziegfeld stage. Of course I didn’t know who Ziegfeld was at the time, but now I get it: He was paying tribute to Paris’ Folies Bergère, New York’s Ziegfeld Follies.

Lou Anne Chessik

MGM, Stardust, MGM Grand Reno, Bally’s (1980s-1990s)

Lou Anne Chessik.

Lou Anne Chessik.

I started ballet when I was 6 and was dancing with a ballet company by the time I was 17. I went to New York. … Everywhere I auditioned, I was told I was too tall—I was even too tall for the Rockettes. After I graduated from college, one of my friends from college lived in Vegas and she said, “Just drive out to Vegas with me.” I said OK because I didn’t know what else to do. Her mom was a cocktail waitress and she comped us into Hallelujah, Hollywood. I went backstage, introduced myself to Fluff [LeCoque], and she gave me a job as a showgirl that night. I went into rehearsals the next day.

Then I was in Hallelujah, Hollywood for a few years. … I ended up at the Stardust in the Lido. I toured Japan, came back to the Lido and then went up to Reno for Hello, Hollywood, Hello! I was in that for four years and then came back down to Enter the Night at the Stardust. I retired [when I became] pregnant with my son.

Hallelujah, Hollywood was one of those classic Donn Arden tributes to the MGM musicals in which you have the specialty acts between the big production numbers. Enter the Night was interesting—it was kind of a cross between a Las Vegas revue show and a New York musical. I never really felt naked in the Donn Arden shows—sometimes there’d be 10 or 12 pieces to a costume. In Enter the Night, I felt a little naked because they didn’t do the body jewels and the underwire bras like Arden did with the bracelets and the necklaces and everything.

When I came to town in 1979, we were dancing six days a week, two shows a night, three on Saturday. Even if you were having a bad day, once you got to work and started putting on your makeup and costume … the second you got on stage and the lights hit, it was your job to entertain the audience. All of a sudden, just the energy. I loved my job; we all loved our jobs. We were doing what we loved to do and we got paid for it.

Grant Philipo

Dunes (1980s)

Grant Philipo

Grant Philipo

I had auditioned for Donn Arden three times. … I was singing in the Cub Lounge at the MGM Grand with Renee Lee—they used to have a lounge directly across the Ziegfeld Room. I got involved in designing costumes and a little while later, I was working at a clothing store called the Hotel for Haberdashery. I was doing the window displays and somebody knocked on the window and it was Fluff LeCoque, waving for me to come out and talk to her. She said, “We’re having the auditions for Jubilee!.… This is going to be a great show. We want it to be the biggest and best show ever. Please come to the auditions.” I went to the auditions, and I’m looking at these guys with my head stretched up toward the sky because they were so friggin’ tall. I didn’t get hired because, at 6 feet 2, I was the shortest guy.

Without the showboys, you couldn’t have those great numbers dancing with the women, doing the lifts and all of that kind of stuff. Showboys didn’t get all of the accolades that the women did because nine times out of 10, they weren’t used in the advertising like the women were. They used the people in their shows to basically entice people to their properties. People automatically start thinking prostitution, and it never was: It didn’t mean that you had to go to bed with them; it meant that they had someone gorgeous on their arm.

I ended up producing my own show at the Dunes in 1992, which was dedicated to Donn Arden and Frederic Apcar. Donn actually sat in the audience and cried and I was like, “Oh, my God, what’s wrong?” And he said, “Nothing. It makes me so proud to see one of my babies do something that I would have done.”

Most production numbers have five to six sections per number, and that’s something that I learned from Donn. There’s sort of a mathematical way to structure shows so that everything keeps building until you get to the end of that vignette and that’s got to be the most spectacular thing. They always used specialty acts to [allow] time to change the sets and the costumes. In my show, we were trying to show people what the shows were like during the ’60s and ’70s in Vegas, when the showboys and showgirls both were practically naked but dripping in thousands of dollars’ worth of jewels and feathers. They were a mix of eroticism with such elegance that it was really important for people to see that this was what Vegas was all about.

Terry Ritter

Sahara, Tropicana, Holiday Casino (1970s-1980s)

Terry Ritter

Terry Ritter

I landed here with my parents when I was 17. I was in the right place at the right time. … I went to UNLV, and I saw a ballet for the first time. They came out to greet us—I loved the ballet and I loved the way they looked, and I thought, “I want to look like that!” I started taking dance classes and three years later, I had a job at the Holiday Casino. Rocky Sennes was the producer.

I’d been taking dance classes for a few years, and somebody told me there was an audition. I had this guy yelling, “You never come to an audition without your eyelashes on!” I didn’t get it, but somebody fell through and he called me: “Let that girl in! I like her!” But I got better, I took lots of dance classes while I was working. I remember when I was the new girl: The other girls teaching me the show—missing entrances and going the wrong way with my oars and all of these things that I had to learn.

I was at one place off and on for 15 years. You have a lot of time between numbers and shows, so I’d paint everybody’s cats and dogs and portraits on my break in the dressing room. Everybody knew that was what I did, so everybody was always bringing me stuff to paint. We had a 20-minute break and an hour between shows. When it’s time to go on they’re like, “Terry!” and I’m putting down paints, running, buttoning up my whatever as I’m going on.

Every four years we’d change the show: It went from Wild World of Burlesque to the Roaring 20s to Keep Smilin’ America—that’s about 15 years off and on. There were more lounge shows. I went from the Holiday to Pin-Ups at the Movies at the Sahara, the Folies Bergère. My husband was an acrobat in that show.

After dancing, I started singing for a while. I noticed that the dancers worked harder, got paid less and were seen less. I could carry a tune, so I asked to be an understudy. [Choreographer] Jerry Jackson said, “Go ahead, be the understudy.” So I got to be the understudy and did a little bit of singing. I started taking singing lessons, understudied in the Holiday show and then I got the lead.

We worked six days a week with each other. You spend a lot of time together, so you’re a family. Even on our one day off, we would all go to the lake together. We had our children close together because of the insurance, and we’d go to Pistol Pete’s for birthday parties. Plus, we had retirement, a 401(k) plan. We had a lot of security. We really had it good then.

Cathy Colbert

Bally’s (Aughts-2010s)

Cathy Colbert

Cathy Colbert

I ended up in Vegas because I was dancing all over the country as a ballet dancer. A good friend of mine was out here—she’s now the assistant company manager of Jubilee!—and I called her to complain about my dance situation. She said, “Get on a plane tomorrow. One of the girls in the show is pregnant, and you would be perfect!”

I became the Bluebell dance captain, which meant I was responsible for about 22-24 girls in the show. As dance captain, you give notes every day to the girls, so anything that’s changing in the show, you make the girls aware of it, who’s out, who’s doing what part. You also teach them the show, so when they’re new, you’re responsible for them knowing all of their parts and their roles. You also act as mom, sister, confidante. … And you’re also full swing, so you jump around in the show and do any part that might be necessary.

I thought my whole life was going to be ballet. Actually there was a show on TV several years back, called Nearly Famous, behind the scenes in Jubilee! I happened to watch and thought, ”I could totally do that!” It was something I did not know existed, but once I saw that show, I was interested. When I had the opportunity to audition and was in Jubilee!, I realized, “Wow, this is what I was meant to do!” It’s a very different way of moving from being a ballet dancer, but there was something about it that just felt right. It’s such a unique experience—where else in the world is wearing more than $8,000 worth of rhinestones part of your job? And I realized very quickly that it was more than just getting to dance: It was being an icon. It’s something I am completely honored by.