Former ‘Folies Bergere’ cast members recall show’s glory days

The kick lines may be gone, but the memories linger on.

No longer does the quintessential Vegas showgirl glide across Strip stages, glittering in rhinestones and sequins and sky-high headdresses adorned with baubles, spangles and beads.

The last show to feature such vintage visions — Bally’s “Jubilee!” — closed in February after a 34-year run.

But a new exhibit, “Les Folies Bergere: Entertaining Las Vegas One Rhinestone at a Time,” recaptures the glimmer of those shining showroom days.

A collaboration between the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas, and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s Las Vegas News Bureau, the exhibit salutes the Tropicana’s long-running spectacular, which closed in March 2009 after almost 50 years. (The imported-from-Paris show debuted on Christmas Eve in 1959.)

Chosen from more than 5,000 negatives, more than 90 News Bureau photos focus on “Les Folies Bergere” in its heyday, including glimpses of the show’s creators at work and onstage photos of the performers — comedians, acrobatic and adagio dancers, among them Nevada Ballet Theatre founder Vassili Sulich.

Folies Bergere Tout vid

And, most prominently, the showgirls who came to symbolize splashy Las Vegas entertainment.

Costume sketches convey their fanciful less-is-more attire. Mannequins model jewel-toned, sequin-studded ensembles, each costing thousands of dollars to create back in the day.

Other documents tell the backstage “Folies” story: a 1959 showgirl’s $108 salary for 15 shows per week and a 1978 warning to an acrobatic dancer that “it is management’s observation that you need to lose weight in order to add to the appearance of the show.”

Several on- and off-stage “Folies” alumni share their fond recollections in video footage. Among them: Jerry Jackson, who joined the show in 1966 as assistant to choreographer Hermes Pan (who worked with the legendary Fred Astaire for 35 years) and went on to choreograph, direct and even design costumes for various “Folies” editions through the bittersweet end.

To provide the real inside scoop, however, six “Folies Bergere” insiders — four dancers and one wardrobe department veteran — teamed up Saturday to kick off the exhibit with a panel discussion devoted to putting-on-the-show details.

The dancers described the challenge of maintaining their balance, let alone their focus, while climbing up and down stairs (and, during the show’s first years, a ladder) in full costume, complete with 4-foot, 35-pound headdresses with steel skeletons.

“We didn’t put them on until the day of the show, and I said, ‘I’ve got to dance like this?’ ” Teri Thorndike — a dancer and line captain from 1970 to 1990 — recalled of her introduction to “Folies” costuming. “Walking down a flight of stairs, if you tilt your head, the hat’s going to go.” (It was a far cry from her previous job dancing in Disneyland’s “Golden Horseshoe Review.”)

Even on stage, dancers parading along the passarelle — a ramp that brought them closer to the audience — had to negotiate the narrow route and tight corners very carefully “so we would not fall into the (orchestra) pit,” said Angela Santangelo, a showgirl and dancer from 2000 to 2009, when the show closed.

“I fell backwards into the pit” while performing “the kick line,” Thorndike confessed.

“We all fell into the pit,” replied an audience member attending the panel discussion.

Lauri Thompson, a principal adagio dancer from 1983 to 1997, recalled slipping and falling on stage during a number that featured a car — one that turned out to be leaking oil. She even remembered the costume she wore: a ball gown designed by Nolan Miller (best known for TV’s “Dynasty”) that “literally floated” when she moved.

Santangelo cited one routine where “we used ropes as props” and in one performance “my rope became tangled in another girl’s rope,” triggering “sheer panic. We kept tugging and tugging.” Because the two never did get untangled, “we both had to walk off the stage together.”

A Russian costume, meanwhile, once thwarted Sheri Mirault — Thorndike’s twin sister — who was a “Folies” adagio dancer from 1970 to 1990.

“I had a big skirt on, with a tambourine, and my feet got tangled in the back of the skirt,” she explained, demonstrating how she was unable to get to her feet — and had to exit the stage dancing on her knees.

Keeping the costumes cleaned, repaired and ready for action was Kathy Kieffner’s responsibility during her 25 years in the wardrobe department, where she dealt with everything from G-strings to a floor-length, bugle-beaded dress employees had to clean by scrubbing it in a bathtub.

One quick change, Kieffner noted, required her to get a dancer “out of her can-can dress — and almost everything else — for the next number,” all in 30 seconds.

“There’s something so iconic about that can-can dress,” Thompson said. “It’s so sweet on the outside — and so sexy on the inside.”

The one panelist who was present for “Folies Bergere’s” final curtain, Santangelo remembered “so much energy between the cast and the audience — the perma-smiles on everyone’s faces. And the tears.”

Thompson choked up as she observed, “You think, ‘wow — I’m different,’ ” after leaving the cast. “All of a sudden, you’re away.” And “the hardest part about leaving the show: Now that I’m a lawyer, nobody claps.”

It’s been seven years since “Folies Bergere” sang and danced and glittered its last.

“It feels longer,” Thorndike said.

These days, she still dances from time to time — and, like her onstage colleagues, copes with “showgirl neck,” a by-product of all those years keeping her head erect while balancing 30-plus pounds of headgear.

“My first show, I was more worried about the hat, because it was so massive,” Santangelo said before the panel started. “Topless? I didn‘t care about that.”

Yet dancing has changed since the days when audiences were awed by “just seeing a beautiful girl walk across the floor,” Thompson said. “I don’t think showgirls are gone — they’re always the icon of Las Vegas. They’re just transitioning the showgirl into a different role.”

Read more from Carol Cling at reviewjournal.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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