An Era Comes to an End

The longest running show on the Las Vegas Strip came to an end last night.  We couldn't be there for the final evening but from what we here it was a rousing evening of entertainment as the curtain came down on the "Folies Bergere".  Former cast members, showgirls and specialty acts all came out to say farewell to the show that helped create the modern showgirl icon we all know so well.

Though we could not be there our good friend Mike Weatherford was and here is his story of the last evening of the "Folies":

The atmosphere onstage resembled a family reunion, albeit a family with lots of tall, glamorous women in heels.

It was the final performance of "Folies Bergere," and one that reached out beyond those who performed the last high-kicking cancan Saturday night to anyone who had been part of the show for its 49 years.

They came to say goodbye in style, from original cast members to recent hires, cheering wildly from the audience for each little bit of choreography by their younger counterparts. They were welcomed, if not into the actual performance, at least for a pre-show alumni photo and more pictures afterward on its storied Moulin Rouge set.

The curtain came down in style on the Parisian topless revue said to be the longest-running in America, one that was closing in on a Christmas day 50th anniversary when it got its pink slip two months ago. Tropicana executives decided not to reinvest in a new edition of the casino-owned revue, but they did not let their jewel go without one last chance to sparkle.

As the PA system beckoned "Folies family, come up" for a pre-show alumni photo, showgirls of all ages flowed onto the stage and packed the "golden staircase" so densely its lighted steps could no longer be seen. "Younger people up on top, please. There's a lot of us," they were coached.

"I felt so short," said comedian Russ Merlin, one of the many variety performers who worked as a specialty act over the years, after the reminder that height requirements for dancers were more stringent back in the old days.

And it was "like a big family," said Daniel Celario, half of the comedy team of Mario & Daniel (Celario), brothers who performed off and on from 1986 through 2000. "It was like going to work at the office with a lot of people you like," he said before the show, when an overhead video screen ran clips of their slapstick routine. He married a dancer, Elaine, who is now the Trop's entertainment director.

Comic juggler Michael Holly had the honor of being the last specialty act to complete a legacy that includes Lance Burton and Siegfried & Roy. "It's starting to hit me. It's a very odd feeling," he said before the show. "All the guys I know who were all the acts, they're all here."

"There's something about this show. It's the feeling we got backstage, the vibe and adrenalin with all the dancers," Daniel Celario said, that wasn't the same opening for laid-back headliners such as Kenny Rogers.

Even though the nightly production became routine, "A fast change is still a fast change," brother Mario noted. "These kids, that's why they work so hard."

"They should have put tissues on every table," said Stephanie Jaynes, an adagio dancer turned company manager who took a maternity leave in June and would have come back "if there was still a show to come back to."

"This is their high school. This is where they grew up, a lot of them," said Rob Galaway, a reminder that, yes, a lot of men danced in the show over the years as well.

"It was a great after-school job," says Vicki Pettersson, a Las Vegas novelist who saw the revue at age 14 and went on to dance in it from 1996 to 2006. "I was tall and grew up in Las Vegas, so instead of 'You should be a model,' it was, 'You should be a showgirl.'"

Bernice McCarthy was one of the original cast members hired by producer Lou Walters and flown in from Europe on a propeller jet. The English dancer was recruited in Milan and only knew Las Vegas was "a long way away."

McCarthy ended up being the lead cancan dancer, staying with the revue until 1967. "We knew everyone everywhere we went," she recalls.

"They used to fly our costumes in on transport planes from France," recalled Joyce Grayson, a 10-year-dancer.

Anita King helped dress the dancers and kept those costumes clean from 1972 to 1980. She helped the new girls adjust to 15- to 25-pound headpieces. "They were scary. The girls had to practice forever."

The "Folies" died of slow starvation over the years, as management and ownership changes stalled major reinvestment in the production that became more and more dated in the Cirque du Soleil era.

Original dancer McCarthy said she was more surprised that "it really lasted this long" than to find out it was closing. "It needed a face lift," she said.

"They nickel and dimed it to death," Pettersson agreed.

But on Saturday, it didn't take much imagination to see the "Folies" in the sheen of an earlier era.

Even Jerry Jackson, the show's director and choreographer since 1975, refused to let things get downbeat in his pre-show remarks when he thanked "all the thousands of performers who have entertained millions of people."

"As Tonto said to the Lone Ranger," the Oklahoma native told the audience, "Giddiup cowboy, it's time to get out of Dodge."


Thanks to Mike for letting us use this piece!