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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Yellow Ribbons

In 1977, the Iranian hostage crisis occurred. A popular song at the time was Tony Orlando's "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" and the yellow ribbon became a symbol for bringing the hostages home safely. An enterprising backstage dresser for "Casino de Paris" decided to make yellow ribbons for each and every member of the cast to wear on their finale costumes one night.

My dressing room decided it was a newsworthy event and I was elected to run it past our Company Manager to see if she'd call the local newspaper. She didn't have quite the same enthusiasm and counseled us to be content with the audience reaction. Being an outspoken, irrepressible personality, I reasoned that if "we" called from the backstage pay phone, no one would be the wiser. As it turned out, the local paper thought it was a good idea and sent a photographer over to capture the moment. As might be guessed, the Company Manager was never fooled as to who made the call.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Party with the Stars

Las Vegas in the 70's was fascinating: invitations to Strip stars' parties, crossing paths with infamous mobsters Tony Spilotro and Lefty Rosenthal, and bit parts in television series like "Vegas."

Two parties stand out in my mind:

One was a roller skating party that Cher threw. A rink was set up behind Caesars Palace and I skated around with Foster Brooks, a comedian and opening act on the Strip. He had been a judge for a silly television show I participated in called "The Unofficial Miss Las Vegas Showgirl Pageant." It was a spoof of beauty pageants in which the participants represented hotels along the Strip and had the most ridiculous and outrageous "talents" possible. The fun part of the show involved the host, Steve Allen. He was not permitted to see or know ahead of time what each contestant was going to do. His jokes were all spontaneous and made the reactions of the judges - Jayne Meadows, Rich Little and Foster Brooks - hilarious. Being pretzelish, my talent was to put one leg behind my neck, then pretend to be stuck. For the rest of the show, I was brought onstage on a dolly with my leg still "stuck" behind my neck and with my "Dunes" banner draped over and around my leg. I ended up damaging a nerve and had no feeling in my foot for almost three months but that's a different story.
The second was another Caesars Palace bash. I don't recall if it was thrown by or for Sammy Davis, Jr., but the ballroom was swarming with dancers and stars and, being starstruck, it was a perfect combination. I made the rounds, meeting Sammy Davis, Jr., an actor from "Vegas" named Charlie Callas and Alex Haley, the author of "Roots." Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think that's also the party where I met Anthony Newley but I could be wrong about that one. One of my fellow performers, a classic English beauty, pretended to be horrified that I was plotting ways to meet the stars - that is until I got a couple of photos. Then she wanted me to introduce her.
I was thrilled with my photos and sent copies home to Texas. When I didn't hear anything from my mother, I called and asked her what she'd thought of the pictures. Having grown up in a small Texas town long before races mingled and schools were integrated, she told me she was impressed that I was meeting famous people but she wasn't comfortable showing the picture with Sammy Davis to her friends because I was standing so close to a black man. She eventually did, but it took her a number of years.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Beast in the Beauty

"Casino de Paris," at the Dunes Hotel was filled with exotic beauties, to be sure, but none more exotic or beautiful than Caesar. He was our lion. Kept in a huge cage backstage near the rear doors, he lounged lazily until his star entrance. Between shows, his handler attached a metal "leash" and took him out for a walk. Had Caesar taken a fancy to bounding out the door, he would've been unstoppable, his leash about as effective as a rubber band on a freight train. - "Whoa Caesar. I said stop!" Right.
The sight of Caesar lethargically plodding around made it easy to see him as a harmless pussycat but, as we discovered one night, there was a beast lurking within the beauty. One of the show's dressers sauntered in and stopped, as many were wont to do, to scratch Caesar on the nose through the bars of his cage. Almost nonchalantly, Caesar deftly chomped off the end of his finger.
I remember Eddie sitting calmly in our wardrobe area, surrounded by the various crew members who had rushed him back where there would be towels available and a place for him to sit down. As they waited for an ambulance to respond, they kept his hand wrapped and his face averted. Eddie was quite obviously in shock because I recall him saying that he'd be fine - just give him a bandaid. I know they had to amputate a little above the bite, but I don't recall if it was above the first or second knuckle.
I also don't recall anyone ever petting Caesar again.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

One Audition, One Not

When I arrived in Las Vegas in 1977, I was both enormously naive and laughingly brazen. I set out to conquer Vegas by making cold calls to hotels and billing myself as the next best thing to hit town since Juliet Prowse or Shirley MacLaine. That works well if the hotel has a production show, but many of them didn't - Caesars being one of them. However, they mentioned that even though theirs was a star-policy hotel, many of the stars had back-up dancers.

I liked that even better. Less dancers; more spotlight. I started (and mercifully ended) my star quest with Robert Goulet. I splurged on a show ticket and tipped enough to get seated down front. I assessed the dancers and knew I could easily keep up. But how to get to the star? During the show, Mr. Goulet proceeded into the audience, weaving his way through the tables and stopping here and there to sing to fans. I grabbed a cocktail napkin, jotted down my phone number, along with the fact that I was a dancer looking for an audition and then waited for him to pass my way.

He stopped in front of me (well, he had no choice really, because I had pushed my chair back into the aisle) and reached out to touch my shoulder. I nonchalantly slipped the napkin into his palm. Not missing a beat, he stuck it in his tuxedo pocket and continued on. I realize now that Mr. Goulet probably thought I was a hooker. In any case, no one called. Imagine that.

I then resorted to traditional methods: newspaper ads. I spotted an audition notice for showgirls at the Tropicana and showed up with a resume about as long as my Vegas career. I sashayed onstage in my standard pink tights, black leotard and ballet slippers. Everyone else wore fishnets, skimpy leotards cut up to here and down to there and mile-high heels. They had foot-long eyelashes that stirred a breeze when they blinked and lipstick red enough to blind.

We were asked to walk down a staircase without looking at the steps. Piece of cake. I floated gracefully down the stairs and waited for round two. Imagine my surprise when I was cut from the audition. I hadn't yet danced a single step after all. So I flounced over to the choreographer and hotly informed him that I resented being dismissed without so much as a double turn or a simple high kick. He asked me if I'd read the ad. It was an audition call for showgirls, not dancers. That was the moment when I learned that "showgirl" wasn't synonymous with "dancer." In fact, I guess I should've realized I didn't fit in because the showgirls at the audition hovered near the cloud cover and I looked sort of shrimpish next to them. Yes, I had a lot to learn.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Vegas - 1977

I graduated from the University of Texas with a BFA in Drama/Dance in 1976 and then spent a year in Washington D.C. drifting from one mediocre teaching job to another before heading to Vegas. I moved into a grubby little apartment that was near the Strip and eagerly pursued every audition, not knowing whether or not the shows were reputable. In the meantime, I worked as a cocktail waitress by the pool at the Circus-Circus Hotel. It took me three months but I finally landed a job as an honest-to-God showgirl in a fabulous show called "Casino de Paris" at the Dunes Hotel. I got the job because, by then, I had met a few dancers in some of the shows and I had gotten a call from one of them tipping me off to the fact that two girls in the show had gotten into a fistfight backstage during the show and had been fired. He suggested I call the Company Manager and casually ask if there were any openings. He knew they would need someone ASAP and although I wasn't really tall enough at 5'8" to qualify as a showgirl, I might do in a pinch.

Now if you didn't question my use of the phrase "honest-to-God showgirl," you should have. Here's why. There was a distinction between dancers and showgirls and then, as now, the dancers hated being referred to as showgirls. Showgirls were outrageously tall, most were quite buxom (not me) and did very little, if any, dancing. They were there to carry the huge costumes, decorate the stage and look pretty - no talent required. The dancers could be slightly shorter, were extremely well-trained and highly professional, and worked up a sweat every show, every night. They didn't just parade around, and it was offensive to be associated with a term that the general public used to connote brainless, untalented and probably easy. I remember that Joan Rivers, who frequently played Vegas back then, once made a joke that the Vegas showgirls couldn't spell MGM backwards. It's funny now but, at the time, no dancer was laughing.

I only spent a few months as a showgirl before being promoted to a dancer position and then I felt like I'd made it. I was on my way to fame and fortune.

Oh, and yes, pictures to follow...