She grew up with braces on her legs — think Forrest Gump — and went on to become a showgirl.
When Sun City Summerlin’s Barbara Riiff Davis began with the Folies Bergère, the Las Vegas Strip had yet to feature big hotels. Davis performed in New York and abroad. Back then, showgirls were billed as “beauties,” and out of a Folies cast of 120, there were only eight of them.
“Showgirls just wore the beautiful costumes,” she said. “… It was wonderful to be on stage looking (glamorous), like, ‘Look at me,’ batting my eyes. It was fun.”
It was a far cry from her childhood. Her father would massage her legs every night, hoping she would walk straight one day. The braces eventually came off, but Davis still had a noticeable gait. By the time she was in high school, she’d learned to twist her legs to align her knees over her feet.
Dancing had always eluded her, so she decided to take lessons. Her “floppy feet,” as she called them, didn’t work any better, but she enjoyed the classes. One day, there was an announcement at the dance school. A show was being cast.
Davis, now 92, went to the audition on a lark. She waited her turn to impress the French director, Clifford C. Fischer. But after seeing all the other girls doing various graceful moves, she apologized to Fischer for wasting his time.
But he saw something in the 5-foot-10 beauty and told her she could be a showgirl.
“I was shocked,” she said. “He’d seen me walk straight toward him … crooked legs, floppy feet and all.”
She signed a contract that night and soon began rehearsing in an arena in Hollywood. Rehearsals were a breeze. All she had to do was stand in place while the dancers did their thing all around her. Some numbers had her move to another position to, again, stand there smiling.
“I liked being on stage and being admired; what girl wouldn’t?” she said.
One Folies costume had Davis in a full-length, flesh-colored leotard with ribbons in strategic places. The costume required her to wear a shoulder harness to support a huge fan of feathers, much like a peacock.
“Thank goodness I had a dresser to help me on with it,” she said. “It weighed so much.”
Another costume came with a cumbersome headpiece. It was tall and heavy and required 6-inch hairpins to keep it in place. Any tip of the head could mean those hairpins stuck her scalp like miniature knives. But she smiled through it, gliding into position until the number was over.
When the show was in Portland, Oregon, a naughty kitten costume was worn by another girl. It caused such an uproar in the community that the show was shut down.
Northwest resident Mikel Peterson was a dancer and showgirl on the Las Vegas Strip as described in her book “Showgirl Memoir” (showgirlmemoir.com). She said the modern-era showgirl went way beyond merely standing on stage as eye candy and laughed at hearing a show closed due to a nude leotard.
“Back in those days, I guess that would be pretty (scandalous),” she said. “Look at the swimsuits they wore. I mean, I can understand how they dressed, but not how they closed the show over it.”
Another production in which Davis appeared was Earl Carroll Vanities in Hollywood. It was hyped as the “Through These Portals Pass the Most Beautiful Girls in the World” show. After Carroll was killed in an airplane crash, Vanities closed.
Fischer hired her again for a show going to South America. In Rio de Janeiro, it was not uncommon to have her butt pinched. It was a rude awakening, she said. So was learning that some of the Brazilian girls in the show moonlighted as prostitutes and “made no bones about it,” Davis said.
It was wartime and cars were scarce, but she dated and eventually married a wealthy businessman, a marquis, whose life of privilege included owning a Packard. Gasoline was nowhere to be found, so it ran on coal and had to be started by lighting a newspaper on fire.
One of her favorite memories is being backstage, knitting socks for one of her five husbands (which one, she forgets) while naked, in between shows.
“I don’t know why that sticks in my mind,” she said.
Her photo appeared in an issue of Playbill from 1944. It has been used through the years as representative of the time and can still be found online.
After spending about 10 years as a showgirl, Davis moved to Reno, earned a degree and worked as a craps dealer at Harold’s. She recently finished a book, “Craps & the Showgirl” (showgirlpublishing.net), relating her experiences.
“Looking back at old showgirl pictures, I am quite proud of myself,” Davis said. “I managed to hide my crookedness and persevered in a profession where beauty and perfection were the prime requisites.”
Contact Jan Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2949.