A smart friend of mine once said, “There has to be a Las Vegas somewhere, even if it exists only in people’s minds.”
His point was that there is a primal craving for someplace on the planet where the average citizen can dream of going in order to indulge all those fantasies he stores up in his everyday existence, a place where he can do the unthinkable, unchain the libido, be irresponsible, even be sinful, and then, when it’s all over, go home and pretend that none of it ever happened.
Our marketing gurus still package that escapist fantasy in advertisements throughout the world, and whether the images that flash across the screen or in print are of glistening cuisine from a world-class chef, or emerald green fairways, or dice bouncing off the borders of a craps table, or a spiked-up deejay performing digital acrobatics in a nightclub, somewhere in the montage is that most indelible image that Las Vegas calls its own: the showgirl.
For nothing screams “Las Vegas” louder than an impossibly tall and elegant beauty draped in every color of the spectrum, peering out from her Mayan headdress and suggesting that she can take ordinary Joe away from all his troubles.
And yet, sadly, the showgirl is increasingly becoming a footnote in our history pages, much like the atomic tests of the 1950s and the dapper maître d’ with the diamond cuff links who would lead you to your seat at Sinatra’s ’70s dinner show and ask how Billy was doing in soccer.
Let’s face it: Las Vegas pretty much sucks when it comes to preserving our heritage. I mean, who other than us throws huge parties and pops champagne corks when historic buildings are imploded?
I’ll admit, there are a few encouraging signs that suggest we are starting to embrace our past. Cases in point are the National Atomic Testing Museum, the Neon Museum and the Mob Museum. But there is so much more we can do, like resurrecting the showgirl as the iconic image of our city. Today’s showgirl has largely been replaced in this century by athletic and graceful acrobats who left behind competitive gymnastic careers to join the Cirque du Soleil troops. While these female jocks are to be admired for their skill and discipline and their ability to meet the physical demands of their art — and I certainly don’t fault them for flocking to Las Vegas to take advantage of the job opportunities — they rather skew the image of Las Vegas as the Valhalla of fantasy and illusion. For old-school dudes like myself, I still prefer the showgirls.
Maybe the gradual diminishment of the brand began with that dreadful 1995 movie “Showgirls,” which regularly appears on Top Ten lists of the worst movies ever made. The city of Las Vegas should have sued for libel. I’m certain that a large percentage of the masochists who bought tickets to that abomination were former fans of the Saturday morning television classic “Saved by the Bell,” and then only to see Elizabeth Berkley in her birthday suit, which was her costume most of the film.
Here is just one of the frightening exchanges screenwriter Joe Eszterhas gave poor Berkley (whose film career was DOA after that appearance).
“I got my period.”
“Yeah, right. That’s OK. I got towels.”
I’m not making this up. The clear suggestion of the movie is that a Las Vegas showgirl was nothing more than a lap dancer with a larger audience. Of course, longtimers here know that at one time the profession was an excellent way for a young woman to either pay her way through school, help her husband pay the bills as they planned a family, or even get noticed on a journey to Hollywood. An earlier generation of entertainers like Valerie Perrine, Susan Anton, Bobbi Gentry and Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira, Mistress of the Dark) all had their showgirl moments before moving on to bigger stages.
A younger generation is probably not aware of a time when wearing the sequins and feathers had all the glamour of being a supermodel on the runways of Paris and New York.
A case in point is Felicia Atkins, a former star of the “Folies Bergere” at the Tropicana, who was the most publicized showgirl in Las Vegas history. For 19 years Felicia represented to the world everything it thought a showgirl should be, and more. With her raven dark hair, dark eyes, full lips and overwhelming bosom, Felicia was the essence of the unattainable goddess the guy from Topeka would take home in his dreams. She was a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins, with the body of Kate Upton.
Within a year of Felicia’s winning a spot in the show in 1957, her role in the Folies expanded from stunning mannequin to mistress of ceremonies, and she announced all of the stars who headlined the show, performers such as Ernie Kovaks, Eddie Fisher, Yvonne DeCarlo and Jayne Mansfield. She also played straight woman to comedians in the show. A few years into her contract she began touring the country as an official spokeswoman for the Tropicana, posing for photos with hotel customers, doing media interviews, and by her very presence revealing to the world the magic and beauty of Las Vegas.
“I really dressed up for those trips,” Atkins told me in an interview many years ago. “I would meet with travel agents, gamblers and the media, and everywhere I went I was treated like a movie star, a queen. The showgirl in those days was very well-respected. I was always made to feel like somebody special.”
Felicia’s commitment to the Tropicana and Las Vegas was so strong that she turned down a Hollywood movie career. Jerry Lewis cast her as his leading lady in the film “The Errand Boy” in 1961, and she did a television special with Gene Kelly. Other movie offers followed, but she elected to keep her job at the Tropicana. It offered better security, and she loved the work.
There’s further evidence that the showgirl’s stature has been on a slow decline. Not long ago I heard Joan Rivers joke that the typical showgirl couldn’t spell M-G-M, and the audience howled. And another Las Vegas comedian said he’d given up dating showgirls because he always ended up “chipping a tooth.”
As a town that has always done a masterful job of branding ourselves to the world at large, it would be a shame to let our most enduring symbol of Las Vegas glamor slip further into obsolescence.
There was a reason our former mayor and current “First Man” Oscar Goodman always appeared in public with a martini in one hand and a showgirl on either arm.
In simple terms, Oscar understood.
Longtime Las Vegas resident and author Jack Sheehan’s column appears monthly. He says he loves the city, with all its wonder and weirdness, and thinks it offers the richest menu of writing material on the planet. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Review-Journal columnist Vin Suprynowicz will return.