Some things don't change. Like Frank Marino in a fuchsia dress.
He looks vaguely comical in this fitting session with dressmakers named Shai and Assaf, chiefly because he is otherwise not in drag.
But if a man in a dress was not inherently funny, would people have paid to see Marino wear one since 1985?
"Is it easy for me to get into it? I only got two minutes," Marino asks as Shai pins.
"Two minutes? No way," Assaf tells him. A bit later, he says, "Listen. If you pay me $500 an hour, I will come change you."
"If I had to pay you $500 an hour it would change me," Marino replies, and they all laugh.
It's easy to laugh now, after "Divas Las Vegas" was declared "officially" open Thursday at the Imperial Palace. (It has been up and running since October, but the past four months were considered a "soft" opening, awaiting various things such as a custom set and the $5,000 fuchsia dress.)
Marino wasn't laughing Feb. 9 of last year, when he was informed he had just performed his last show of "An Evening at La Cage." Producer Norbert Aleman had pulled the plug after 23 years in the Riviera's zebra-striped showroom.
There had been warnings. Marino says he agreed to his salary being halved, and his fellow performers were passing out discount coupons. But the last show turned out to have been that after the curtain went down.
"I would have liked to have had a grand exit," Marino says. "I didn't even get a breeze from a wave goodbye. I must have brought in millions of people to that property."
But Marino also was in the ninth year of a 10-year contract. And in his recurring public feuds with Aleman, he always claimed he would do it better once he was free.
Now that it's his turn, he believes he is doing just that, even amid conditions that hastened the first show's demise.
"We're spending a lot of money on sets, props, costumes and choreography, and doing it at probably the worst (economic) time you can do it, in an awkward time slot," he says of "Divas," the 10 p.m. show he co-produces with Adam Steck's SPI Entertainment.
On the plus side, he beat his former producer in the critical race of who would first return to the Strip. Aleman planned to revive "La Cage" if he could sell a behind-the-scenes reality TV show.
Not that Marino didn't think of that. He says he filmed seven pilots on his own for as many reality concepts and now has "no desire to do a reality show unless it literally falls in my lap."
Marino is the Strip's longest-tenured performer, at least among those who work week in and week out (versus headliners such as Wayne Newton who come and go in specific engagements).
The New Yorker joined the young production in 1985, when the Riviera was a front-line casino and the three new showrooms which included "La Cage" represented a significant investment on a stagnant Strip.
Then and now, Marino is introduced as a Joan Rivers impersonator. But for years -- ever since the real Rivers complained -- he has performed his own jokes instead of hers.
"La Cage" was staged three times a night for the first 16 years. At that 16-year mark, Marino negotiated a new contract, which gave him six weeks off each year instead of just one week at Christmas. But he didn't always use them all. "I get bored when I'm not working."
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, "La Cage" went down to one show a night. After the 2004 addition of Derrick Barry as Britney Spears -- who later received national attention on "America's Got Talent" -- the revue quit trying to keep up with the times beyond Marino's comic monologue.
"When Britney was a total mess, I must have said 'Do comedy Britney' a hundred thousand times," he cites as one example of a suggestion ignored.
Now in creative charge of "Divas," Marino says the key difference from the old boss is a collective sense of ownership.
"I sat down with each performer and said, 'What are your ideas?' When they do the number now, it's part of them."
There are two major changes the audience might notice as well. Instead of the female showgirls of "La Cage," Marino added Chippendales-type male dancers. "I wanted big masculine men that could dance," he says, "if for no other reason than to make us (drag performers) look smaller."
And the four holdovers from "La Cage" were chosen in part to balance the newer and older pop legends. "I will never have a Judy Garland in my show," he says, but tributes to Lady Gaga and Beyonce join favorites such as Celine Dion, Cher and Diana Ross.
Marino now must hope that men in drag have enough continuing fascination for a large-cast show with a medium-priced ticket to survive a bad economy.
But that question will be answered in time. Now, Marino is leaving a message on his own dressing room's answering machine. He reminds himself to bring in some feathers from his boa so Shai and Assaf can match them for the fuchsia gown.
Some things don't change.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.