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Netflix’s ‘GLOW’ moves to Las Vegas, wrestles with LGBTQ issues

It’s taken two years, 15 Emmy nominations and no telling how many tanker trucks filled with hairspray, but the ladies of “GLOW” (Friday, Netflix) are finally headed to Las Vegas where they belong.

The comedy is loosely based on the syndicated “GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” that called the Riviera home from 1986 to ’90. As Season 3 begins, the wrestlers have taken up residency as part of a nightly show in the fictional Fan-Tan Hotel & Casino. According to one character, it’s located “about $200 east” of the Strip.

“Vegas feels like a very tricky place for women in 1986, so that felt really interesting to us,” co-creator Liz Flahive says of the period piece. “But we wanted to get it right, and we wanted the details of being a performer living and working in Vegas to feel real and to feel very authentic.”

‘An insane thing’

Flahive and co-creator Carly Mensch, self-described “research nerds,” led a group of around 20 members of the show’s writing staff on a three-day fact-finding mission to Las Vegas. Their itinerary included stops at Grant Philipo’s Las Vegas Showgirl Museum, “Vegas! The Show” and the old “Jubilee!” dressing rooms at Bally’s.

“It was, like, such fairy dust to be around those racks and racks of costumes,” Flahive says of their “Jubilee!” experience. “It’s an insane thing to see.”

That connection came in handy for a subplot involving Sandy Devereaux St. Clair (Geena Davis), the Fan-Tan’s entertainment director. The former showgirl oversees the hotel’s long-running production show, “Rhapsody,” in the big room. To make those dancers look as authentic as possible, the series worked out a deal to use some of the actual “Jubilee!” costumes.

“We obviously had to insure them, we had to go pick them up, and they had to be stored at a certain temperature,” Flahive says. “And we were very, very, very, very careful with them, because they’re just … they’re astonishing.”

The creators reached out to numerous people who’ve worked the Strip, including show producer David Saxe and magician Murray Sawchuck. The former earned a shoutout as part of a great only-in-Vegas joke — other Strip heavyweights name-dropped this season include dancer and choreographer Ffolliott “Fluff” LeCoque, choreographer and producer Donn Arden and “Splash” producer Jeff Kutash — while Sawchuck appears as a Fan-Tan room-service waiter and magician.

“Everyone we talked to was incredibly helpful in our world-building, which took a lot,” Mensch says.

A poignant turn

Perhaps the show’s most unexpected detour this season stemmed from local LGBTQ historian Dennis McBride, who sent the creators an oral history of local female-impersonator legend Kenny Kerr.

The late “Boy-lesque” star was “100 percent” the inspiration for Fan-Tan headliner Bobby Barnes (Kevin Cahoon), Mensch says. The drag performer, whom the wrestlers befriend, allowed “GLOW” to look at the struggle for acceptance that gay performers faced in Las Vegas in the 1980s.

“The seeming permissiveness,” Flahive says, “contrasted against the conservatism was intriguing to us. … It’s seemingly a very sexually open town, yet the sodomy laws were kind of not off the books and Liberace wasn’t even out — and the next year would die of AIDS.”

It’s a more poignant story than viewers might expect, considering the original “GLOW” featured recurring sketches like the one that sent the wrestlers to the offices of the gynecologists, plastic surgeons and psychiatrists known as Drs. Fiel and Grope.

“They put on one hell of a weird show, and I think we are so inspired by that,” Mensch says of the originators. “We’re also theater people and people with a soft spot for vaudeville.”

The wackiness of the original series, which they first experienced via the 2012 documentary “GLOW: The Story of The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” is a large part of what drew them to create their fictionalized underdog story.

“And the fact that that show mish-moshed so many tones, so many genres, all linked by a sense of humor. … The fact that it was so many things,” Mensch says, “and so many mismatching things, was probably another reason that we fell in love.”

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

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