When the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas acquired more than 8,000 costumes and other items from Les Folies Bergere, they came with a mystery. Two women have been unraveling it with the help of photographs, first-person accounts and a little dancing.
“When we would bring the former showgirls down to look at the collection, they would immediately start dancing,” said Karan Feder, guest curator of costumes and textiles at the museum at the Springs Preserve, 309 Valley View Blvd. “The costumes reminded them of the choreography that went with it.”
In June, Feder and Las Vegas News Bureau media services manager Ginny Poehling had sorted out enough of the collection to allow the exhibit “Les Folies Bergère: Entertaining Las Vegas One Rhinestone At A Time” to open at the museum and in the central hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, 3150 Paradise Road. The exhibition includes many costumes from the show’s 50-year run along with 107 photos of the show from the bureau. The photos helped Feder and Poehling piece together the history of the costumes.
“The collection came with no documentation,” Feder said. “We didn’t know which pieces came from which years, and we didn’t know what numbers they were worn in.”
The staff of the News Bureau scanned more than 5,300 negatives and looked through 1,700 photos that had already been scanned to help date the items.
“Les Folies Bergère” ran at the Tropicana from 1959 to 2009. When the show closed, the costumes went into storage. Feder said the casino was considering auctioning the items, but the storage and inventory costs became too much. When a new show was set to come in, Feder asked for the costumes for the museum.
In addition to the News Bureau photos, UNLV Special Collections gave the pair access to its Folies Bergère collections.
“That allowed us to choose what we felt would be the photos of greatest impact to our exhibit,” Poehling said. “Photos were selected based on the story we wanted to tell and the availability of costumes with photo matches. After narrowing photos down to 107, I created and designed the artwork.”
It’s unusual for a collection like this to survive. Often costumes get repurposed for other shows, sold piece by piece or thrown away. For a time it was more cost-effective to destroy the costumes due to a complex set of tax bonds related to the imported costumes and sets. The sets and costumes for several Las Vegas shows were initially built in Paris.
“I’d heard the stories of burning the costumes for years, but I didn’t believe them,” Feder said. “Then the News Bureau found a videotape of it happening, right behind the Tropicana. The videotape shows a big pile of set pieces and at the bottom you can see feathers and rhinestones. A woman in a bathing suit, who we assume was a showgirl, set it on fire with a torch while an officious man with a clipboard stands by, presumably making sure everything is destroyed.”
Not all of the Paris-made costumes were destroyed, as Feder has included examples of Parisian costume design in the show.
“We were surprised by the success of the show,” Poehling said. “It has been extended until September at the museum, and it’s still on display at the convention center until we mount a new show, but we haven’t started putting the next show together yet.”
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