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‘Sisters to the end’: ‘Folies Bergère’ alums bid farewell to Tropicana

Updated March 31, 2024 - 2:31 pm

“It was where all the celebrities wanted to be,” Marlene Pendleton recalled. “It was the ‘Tiffany of the Strip,’ they said.”

The former showgirl, who joined “Folies Bergère” as its lead dancer in 1964, was the belle of the ball Saturday night in the Trago Lounge at the Tropicana, a sequin’s throw away from the theater the legendary show called home during its 49-year run.

What began as a chance for a small group of “Folies” alums to meet at the bar one last time, 15 years almost to the day after the show’s closing on March 28, 2009, snowballed into a reunion of some 300 former Tropicana entertainers, said organizer Traci Kesisian.

“This place that was my home away from home is going to be wiped off the map,” said Kesisian, the lead singer in “Folies” from 2001-08, when she left the show 22 weeks into her pregnancy, before coming back for the final performances. “It’s heartbreaking really.”

Saturday offered a chance to bid farewell to the Tropicana before it closes Tuesday, two days before what would have been its 67th anniversary.

“They should’ve closed the Trop a while back,” said Trish Randall, a “Folies” showgirl from 1996-2003, when a backstage knee injury ended her time at the Tropicana. “She’s kind of limped off, you know? And that’s what they did with the show as well. They stopped giving it money. It was disrespectful.”

Brushes with history

“Yipes! What a show!” That declaration began the initial write up of “Folies Bergère” by the Review-Journal’s Les Devor in his “Vegas Vagaries” column on Jan. 14, 1960, three weeks after the show’s Christmas Day opening. “Reams of copy can be written about the magnificent sets, the daringly beautiful costumes,” Devor added, “and before the show has run its course, reams will be written by hundreds of writers.”

“Folies” would become famous as the local launching pad for two of the most popular magic acts in the city’s history. Siegfried & Roy first performed in Las Vegas as part of the show in June 1967. Lance Burton, who would go on to headline the Monte Carlo (now Park MGM) from its opening in June 1996 until he retired from the Las Vegas stage in September 2010, made his local debut with “Folies” in May 1982, sticking with it until July 1991.

“Folies Bergère” had another important brush with history when Joseph Agosto, who had owned and produced the show, testified in 1983 that he had used his position at the Tropicana to skim profits for the Kansas City mob.

Still close friends

Words like “family” and “home” come up early and often when speaking with these entertainers.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Derek Hart, a dancer and acrobat who joined “Folies” straight out of high school in 1998 and was with the show off and on until it closed. “I would’ve never thought that a place that was my second home was going to close.”

Kesisian, currently an emcee and freelance entertainer, knew she’d made it when she realized the Tropicana dressing room she shared with the lead dancer in “Folies” had been used by Ann-Margret, one of her idols, during her shows there. “Many of these people,” Kesisian said of her co-stars, “they are still my closest friends to this day.”

After “Folies,” Randall became a full-time Realtor. She’s now a district manager with ADP Payroll Services.

“Some of the headpieces were as heavy as 30 pounds,” she recalled of her showgirl days, “and a lot of times you were kind of balancing them on your head, because maybe they don’t fit everybody just right.”

Many of the dresses were old, Randall said, returning to the idea that the hotel didn’t take care of “Folies” the way it should have. Rather than replace the sequins, new ones would be added on top of them, making the costumes even heavier.

“We all seem to have the same neck issues,” Randall said of her former colleagues.

She gets together every month with a core group of eight, and as many as 20, of them for “girlie nights.”

“I still stay very close with all the girls,” Randall said. “They’re my best friends. We’re sisters to the end.”

Showgirls on stilts

Saturday’s gathering wasn’t just for former “Folies” cast members.

Kelly Millaudon, now a fifth grade teacher, and Larissa Sherman, currently a corrections officer, performed aerial acts above the Tropicana’s slot machines as part of the free “Air Play” show in the early 2000s.

They also paraded around the casino and the pedestrian walkways outside it on stilts, wearing what Millaudon calls “full-on showgirl garb, G-strings and all.” They somehow managed to contort their way into elevators, even with their headdresses.

For Sherman, the Tropicana’s closing feels “kind of like part of your life slipping by.”

“I’m grateful to say I was a part of Las Vegas history,” Millaudon said. “I was a showgirl. I was an acrobat. I was a part of this ‘world that was’ for a good 30 years.”

‘It was so much fun’

In a room full of people who can be squeamish about revealing their age, Pendleton stands out in her sparkly cocktail dress. She’s 84 years old and doesn’t care who knows that.

Pendleton moved from New York to Las Vegas when she was cast in “Folies” in 1964, kicking off a 20-year dance career on the Strip.

“It was so much fun in those years,” Pendleton said. “That’s when everyone dressed to go see a show. Women were in cocktail dresses and men in suits. It was just a different era.”

At the Tropicana, she danced with Vassili Sulich, who co-founded Nevada Ballet Theatre with Nancy Houssels, another “Folies Bergère” alum. Pendleton recalls other dancers being distracted by celebrities, including Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, in the audience and trying to show off for them. One night, her ornate dress swept the toupee from the head of orchestra conductor Ray Sinatra, leaving him to search for it as the audience roared.

Saturday marked Pendleton’s first “Folies” reunion, although she’s been embraced by dozens of the women who came after her.

It also was the final time she’ll see the Tropicana, as it’s scheduled to be replaced by a $1.5 billion, 30,000-seat stadium for the current Oakland A’s.

“I’m saddened by that,” she said of the ballpark. “But I know that it’s going to create a lot of jobs and something new for Las Vegas, and I think that’s a tremendous value.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on X.

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